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When does a Machine Become a Robot, and a Robot Become a Human?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Defining what a robot is isn't easy. There may be general agreement that it's a machine, but beyond that, the definitions vary from expert to expert. Most people agree that for a machine to "qualify" as a robot it must have some form of intelligence with a capacity to be programmed and to perform tasks commonly done by humans or animals. In addition, most people would require a robot to have some human or animal physical features, like arms, feet, eye or ears.

The word "robot" was introduced to the world in 1921 by the Czech playwright Karel Capek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). Robots have come a very long way since then, yet have much further to go; science fiction helps us guess how far. Writers like Capek love robots because they allow their imaginations free rein. They can endow their robots with omnipotent powers for good or evil. Readers and cinemagoers love robots too, because they're machines with very human traits. We can even develop affection for them, as with the two lovable robots in Star Wars. More seriously, we can visualise future robot soldiers with super human strength fighting wars in place of humans, or robots working on industrial processes or in locations too hazardous for humans. After the recent Japanese nuclear disaster, urgent work had to be done near the reactors. Radiation levels were too high for humans, yet only humans had the skill needed to deal with all the problems. This environment would have been perfect for the deployment of robots and they were used there for some operations. But no suitable robots were available for the most critical work. Hopefully, they will have been developed in time for similar operations in the future. This raises the question: How advanced are today's robots?

Amazingly advanced is the simple answer and they're getting more sophisticated all the time. Much of the development in robotics is funded by the military. Robots are being developed to carry heavy loads across uneven terrain and take the load off soldiers' backs. Some of these robots walk on four agile legs like big dogs or small mules. They have extra wide backs to carry greater loads and a lower centre of gravity for more stability. One such "animal" appropriately named BigDog is at an advanced stage of development at Boston Dynamics, a company working for the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It can walk up steep wooded inclines, through snow and even along the ties of a railroad. It doesn't fall over when forcefully shoved from the side, but instantly adjusts its gait and steadies itself just like a four-legged animal.

At a less serious level there's the humanoid robot Nao developed by the French company Aldebaran Robotics. This little guy stands on two legs and is just 58 cm high (22.83 inches). He doesn't fall over thanks to his computer-controlled accelerometer and gyrometer. He doesn't walk into obstacles either, thanks to his two camera eyes and ultra-sound echo system. He has many very human-like features. He can talk in both English and French, and even recognises the person talking to him. Some of his capabilities could make us humans envious. Wouldn't it be handy if your brain could download all the images you remember of your last vacation? Well, if Nao had gone with you, he could do just that. He can also surf the web and communicate with other Naos by WiFi. Cute as he is, Nao is really a serious chap. He's the world's most widely used humanoid robot for academic purposes, mainly because he's fully programmable and uses specially designed software compatible with Windows, Mac OS and Linux.

The more robots display human traits, the more we interact with them as though they were rational beings. Of course, they're not, at least not yet. Nevertheless, their similarities to humans bring up very profound questions: Will robots be rational in the future? Will humans always be fundamentally different from robots? What does being human mean? Could robots become more intelligent than we are and pose a threat to the human race - a scenario often portrayed in science fiction?

The dangers of such excessive machine power were vividly illustrated by "HAL," the computer with the monotone voice in the iconic film "2001: A Space Odyssey." Some may say that HAL was not a robot; he had no limbs and no way to move about. But he had no need to. He had eyes everywhere and electronic "fingers" connected to every part of the spacecraft. His ultra-sensitive brain knew the crew's thoughts, feelings and intentions. What we learn from this cautionary work of science fiction is that man must always be able to override the machine. That seems obvious, but in the future it may prove easier said than done. HAL was programmed to ensure the mission's completion and the integrity of the ship's systems for the duration of the long trip to Mars. When the crew decided to alter the mission, HAL couldn't allow that to happen. He did all in his power to prevent it, including killing crewmembers. It was only by human cleverness and luck that eventually he was disconnected. It could easily have been otherwise.

HAL showed that robots don't need to have physical limbs to wield great power. Little electronic computer programs that scour the Internet looking for information for search engines like Google are called robots. The internet itself is like an enormous living entity with tentacles enmeshing the globe, constantly searching for and disseminating data at enormous speed. Malicious software is a good example of how parts of this huge "robot" can be controlled by malefactors. The success of malware suggests that in some ways, this robot we call the Internet may already be beyond our control.

Right now, it's not a compliment to be told that you act like a robot. Soon, it will no longer be insulting; it will mean you're a highly intelligent individual with enormous talent. Further into the future though, when robots have taken over the earth and turned us all into slaves, it will again become an insult. Humankind's future may depend on us knowing when it's still not too late to stop that happening. Rather ominously, the word "robot," first coined by Karel Capek in 1921 comes from the Czech word "robata," which means forced work or serf labour. In the play, highly intelligent robots do all the hard work for humans. In the end, they mutiny, and the ensuing rebellion leads to the annihilation of the human race. Let's hope not all science fiction writers are clairvoyant.

Headaches From Computer Use

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Do you often experience headaches from computer use? You’re not alone. A significant portion of the population is forced to deal with nagging headaches when they work on a computer too long. This can be a particularly frustrating problem for people who depend on a computer for their livelihood. What causes headaches from computer work?

Headaches From Computer Use: What Causes Them?

Most commonly, computer headaches comes from chronic eyestrain. Computer work forces the eyes to focus at a single distance for prolonged periods of time. This puts lots of strain on the ciliary muscles that control eye movements. Bad lightening and glare coming from the computer monitor also contributes to the problem of eyestrain - and the headaches that come from it.

Some people who experience eyestrain and recurrent headaches from computer use simply need to have their prescription changed. Others, who don’t wear glasses or contacts, may need to get corrective lenses. You can even buy special computer glasses that have an anti-reflective coating to reduce glare, but see an eye doctor first to make sure a prescription isn’t needed.

Headaches from Computer Use: Other Causes

Sometimes computer headaches come from muscle strain related to bad posture. Laptops are notorious for causing strained neck and back muscles, because you have to bend over more when using one. Re-evaluate your workstation, or have a professional do it, to make sure it’s ergonomically correct - and make any adjustments necessary to reduce back and neck strain that can trigger computer headaches.

Other tips? Don’t forget to take frequent breaks to give your eyes, and neck and back, a break from being in one position too long. Keep a set of light hand weights nearby and do a few upper body exercises to target the neck and back muscles throughout the day. This will help to strengthen the strained muscles and make them more resistant to soreness. Yoga exercises also work well for reducing muscle strain.

Cause of a Headache: It’s Not Always the Computer

Don’t be too quick to blame it all on your computer. There are other causes of headaches. If the symptoms don’t resolve, see a doctor to make sure there’s not another reason why your head hurts all the time.

References "Eyestrain May Cause Headaches"
Merck Manual. Eighteenth edition. 2006.

Fiction about domestic robots

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

There is no doubt that you will enjoy owning your first domestic robot. You will love it, your wife will love it and your kids will love it. Your dog will hate it.

The thing is, dogs don't understand robots. They look and act like humans, but don't smell like them. They smell like a cross between your car and your PC and this is confusing to the canine brain. But do not despair. Your dog will not live for much longer than 12 years, whereas your robot will probably outlast your grandchildren.

The multi-purpose, domestic robot is of course extremely versatile and will come pre-programmed with various domestic chores such as cooking and cleaning. Additional software can be bought which will enable it to perform tasks such as car and home maintenance. The children's entertainment package is, however, flawed, as any order to walk a tightrope in the garden will prove. This is not to say that your machine is inherently unstable, and its awkward walk can easily be compared to Buddy coming home after eight beers.

The voice recognition software is also not perfected. A slurred command to boil an egg can lead to the poor machine searching for a neck to boil. Orders should be given clearly and succinctly with no prospect of ambiguity. For instance, ‘Go away' is not a command you should give your unit, as it is likely that it will next be spotted in Mongolia.

The manufacturers have, surprisingly, not included any software to allow the machine to maintain its own external cleanliness and this will require you to hose it down in the garden at least once a week. Be careful, as it is not totally waterproof. Alternatively it can be ordered to visit the local car wash on a regular basis, though do remember to give it only enough cash for a basic wash as waxing and polishing are not really necessary.

On the culinary front the machine is adequate rather than inspired. It can indeed be programmed with every meal recipe known to man, as the advertising states, but its cooking style is mechanical to say the least. Without taste buds it has no way of judging a dish and one small error in its onboard recipe database can lead to a very salty meringue.

The sports model is of course ideal for the health conscious family. There is no better golfing partner as it has no qualms about carrying everyone's clubs in a foursome. With its laser guided vision, lost balls are also a thing of the past. At tennis too it is unbeatable. This is literally true; unless you adjust its upper body strength it will serve a succession of aces that will destroy you. It is in the pool, however, that the machine is finally beaten. Your domestic robot is not buoyant and will sink like a stone. The children may find this amusing, but it will cost you thousands of dollars to winch the unit from the bottom of the pool and have it professionally dried out. Your wife's hair dryer will not do the job.

It must also be said that the robot has absolutely no interest in your naked body or its functions. If it has a task to perform it will march into the bathroom no matter what you are doing. Locking the door will not stop a machine capable of demolishing your house. Its priority is to fulfil its task. Your youngest son will, of course, delight in telling the machine to bring something from the bathroom when your teenage daughter is in the shower, leading to consequent shrieks, but recall that the robot can also be programmed to discipline children. It is of course unable to physically harm, but your son will find it uncomfortable to find the unit standing at the school gates waiting for him with a set of baby reins.

Most families give their robot a pet name almost immediately...we can be sure about this.

The Future of Computers and Artificial Intelligence

Saturday, October 1, 2011

In the last 50 years, the advent of computer has radically changed our daily routines and habits. From huge, roomy, terribly expensive and rather useless machines, computers have managed to become quite the opposite of all the above, seeing an exponential growth in the number of units sold and, stunningly, usability as well.

If all of this happened in the first 50 years of computer history, what will happen in the next 5 decades?

Moore's Law is an empirical formula describing the evolution of computer microprocessors which is often cited to predict future progress in the field, as it's been proved quite accurate in the past: it states that the transistor count in an up-to-date microprocessor will double each time every some period of time between 18 and 24 months, which roughly means that computational speed grows exponentially, doubling every 2 years.

But we already have fast computers working with complex applications requiring fairly sophisticated graphics with acceptable CPU usage: so, once we get there, what could we use all of that calculating power for?

In the newborn science of computer algorithms, there is a class called 'NP-hard problems' which are also sometimes referred to 'unacceptable', 'unsustainable' or 'binomially exploding'. Those are a group of algorithms whose complexity grows exponentially with time. An example of NP-hard algorithm is the one of finding the exit of a labyrinth: it doesn't require much effort if you only find one crossing, but it gets much more demanding in terms of resources when the crossings become 10, 100, 1000, until the point where it becomes either impossible to compute because of limited resources, or computable, but requiring an unacceptable amount of time.

Many, if not all, of the Artificial Intelligence related algorithms are now nowadays extremely demanding in terms of computational resources (they are either NP-hard or anyhow involve combinatorial calculus of growing complexity), in addition to the fact that, in the AI domain, an 'acceptable time' to return an answer is much shorter than many other cases -- you want the machine to be answering stimuli as quickly as possible to make it effectively interact with the world around it. Therefore, while it wouldn't be a definitive solution, the constant progress in terms of computational power could boost the progress in the fields of AI in a very significant way.

Will we ever be able to accomplish a general purpose artificial intelligence? It's probably too early to answer, but certainly, if we look at the results of todays technology, they look more than encouraging. Different companies are working on different aspects of this technological dream: Honda is probably the most advanced in terms of mobility and coordination, with their ASIMO robot series, while if we look at the software side, the two most advanced companies are probably CyCorp for their impressive knowledge-based language recognition engine, and Novamente in terms of general intelligence.

How long until we see concrete results, then? CyCorp spokesmen say they are confident they will be able to build a 'usable' general purpose intelligence using their language recognition engine within 2020, while others talk more realistically about 2050. It would be hard, or rather impossible, to say who (if any) is right, but what seems certain in today's situation is that the AI industry is still too fragmented, we are still missing a centralized coordinator who might be able to integrate the varied and highly diversified technologies of today in a single creature, which right now seems the only possible way to meaningfully accelerate the progress of this industry.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Welcome to my blog. I am as curious as you are to see how much time I will have to maintain this :) Will see.