Canada gets robot money May 9, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Word comes today from New Scientist that Canada is going to put robots on its upcoming revision of the five-dollar bill. More specifically, the Canadarm2 and Dextre robot arms will be featured on the note, along with an anonymous astronaut. Behold:
(Bank of Canada/Flickr.com)
This news will please many techies out there, and not just in Canada, e.g., at Engagdet:
Let that sink in for a moment: a country’s currency will reference space robots alongside the usual politicians. The only thing dampening the awesomeness is the irony of it all, as it’s an ode to technology in a format that’s being destroyed by technology. Still, we’ll consider the $5 note a victory for geeks everywhere when we’re buying a box of Timbits.
The design looks pretty neat, and definitely is better than some of the other space-tech possiblities:
Or, there is the more down-to-earth option, that being Justin Bieber:
I suppose that the Mint’s idea to go with the robot is understandable. My one quibble with the design is that it looks somewhat like Laurier’s head is on a spike, that being the pinnacle of the Peace Tower, from which I infer that the designer is not a Liberal.
Two treasure-hunting robots April 29, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Sometimes, the daily news provides items that make for an inadvertent but interesting pair. Today’s news provides just such a comparison, both from the Huffington Post.
The first item concerns a robot that has revealed burial chambers under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan, near Mexico City. Teotihuacan was the site of an ancient civilization that built this monumental city, ever more thoroughly excavated by archaeologists.
New technologies have permitted the excavations to go even further. A 2011 survey using ground-penetrating radar revealed an unexplored tunnel under the Temple. This year, a 77-pound robot named Tlaloc II-TC (after Mexico’s ancient god of rain) was used to inspect the tunnel and see what may be seen. The result was the discovery of several burial chambers, perhaps even those of the rulers of the City.
(Courtesy of INAH)
The second item concerns a young man, who goes by the handle “ioduremetallique”, who has designed a robot that excavates pop cans from vending machines. Have a look!
The design is clever, and I am sure that newer versions will work even faster.
Robots can be great prostheses, helping people to reach places that are difficult or impossible otherwise. Besides helping us stretch our physical limitations, they will help to challenge our ethical boundaries as well.
Hunger Games: Where are the robots? March 26, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV203 , comments closed
The Hunger Games movie has now finished its blockbuster debut, winding up in third spot for all-time take at the box-office on its premiere weekend. It brought in $155 million in North America, putting it in the movie bonanza stratosphere.
I have commented on the appearance of technology in the story earlier. At this point, I would like to briefly raise another technology-related point, namely the lack of robots in the Hunger Games world. Quite simply, there are no robots there. None are mentioned in the novels and none appear in the film (which follows the first novel pretty closely). Yet, the technological level of the Capitol clearly allows them to have advanced robotics. After all, they have high-speed rail, fancy hovercraft, force fields, and genetic engineering. Surely, there should be some robots vacuuming the floors or policing the Districts or something!
Perhaps the explanation is historical: Enemies of the Capitol employed robots during the Rebellion. Not wanting that to happen again, the Capitol has banned robotics. I do not think this explanation holds up, however. After all, the remaining rebels in District 13 are not under Capitol rule and are clearly capable of making robots. Also, they would, no doubt, appreciate the advantages of some surveillance drones. However, they do not seem to have any robots either.
Another explanation might be economic. The Capitol economy depends heavily on the use of coerced labor. That is, it uses its oppressive political arrangements in the Districts to get cheap labor out of the residents there. Since this labor is so cheap, the Capitol has no need of labor-saving technologies such as robots. A similar argument has long been made about the effect of slavery on the Roman Empire, one of the inspirations for the Capitol. The gist of this argument is that since the Romans had cheap labor available in the form of slaves, they then had no use for fancy machinery. This would explain the lack of an industrial revolution in Classical times.
There are a number of problems with this argument. The Romans were actually quite interested in machinery and technology of many kinds. Also, periods of technological progress occurred during peak times of slave ownership in the Classical world, which you would not expect given the explanation above. In addition, slavery may not actually be as cheap as you might expect. Finally, there is the example of the Cotton gin, a machine invented in the late 18th Century for separating cotton fibers from their seeds. Previously a difficult process, the efficiency brought by the Cotton gin actually increased the demand for slaves in agriculture in order to produce the cotton to be processed by the machine. In short, coerced labor and labor-saving machinery, such as robots, are quite compatible in one economy.
Perhaps the Capitol has robots but not of the mechanical kind. The technologists of the Capitol seem quite happy to, and adept at, engineering organisms for their robotic needs. Think of the Jabberjay, a kind of bird designed in the Capitol that could memorize and repeat things that people said. The Capitol used the birds like surveillance drones, to eavesdrop on their enemies. Then there are the various muttations, creatures engineered as weapons to kill tributes in the Games or invaders of the Capitol city itself. (Perhaps the avox, a person who has been deprived of speech and made into a silent servant, could be placed in this same group of beings.) It might be more accurate to say that the Capitol uses robots but that they are the biological rather than the mechanical kind.
Why the preference for biological robots over mechanical ones? One advantage of bio-robots is that they can find their own energy sources, as opposed to requiring a network of power points as would electrical devices. The Hunger Games electrical infrastructure seems to be somewhat limited in scope, compared to the modern electricity grid. Robots that can forage for their own food might be more useful and flexible than robots that run on batteries.
Also, the people of the Capitol seem to have a kind of mania about controlling nature. They fence it off so that the people of the Districts cannot go out in the woods. They seem to dress their bodies and their city so as to distinguish them sharply from their naked and untamed alternatives. Yet, they depend on the Districts and their natural resources for survival. Perhaps their preference for bio-robots provides Capitol dwellers with a means to reconcile this tension, that is, to be separate from their uncivilized surroundings while being in total control of them. True?
Is this situation what our future holds? That is, as people become more urbanized and as the undomesticated world recedes, will we begin to prefer bio-robots over mechanical ones? Well, we do have glow-in-the-dark cats now. Perhaps that is a start.
Stop worrying and love your robot car February 10, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why we drive the way we do, has posted a piece on Wired responding to critics of autonomous or robot cars. Vanderbilt does not name the critics whom he rebuts, so it is difficult to tell if he represents them correctly and fairly. However, the points he makes seem sensible enough on their own merits.
(Alex Goy/Wikimedia Commons)
Two points, however, may present difficulties that do not receive adequate attention in his brief commentary. Let’s start with autonomy and privacy.
Vanderbilt notes that some people may object to robot cars because they would allow Big Brother, aka the government, to have a larger say in the behavior of your car. The point is, I gather, that some drivers enjoy illegal practices such as speeding, or drinking, texting, or watching TV while driving, and so on. A robot car would be programmed to obey all local rules and regulations, and would also be programmed to rat out occupants who break them. Of course, it might be worth pointing out that drinking, watching TV etc., might not be considered an offense in a robot car.
In defense of Vanderbilt’s anonymous critics, robot cars will raise issues with driving and traffic that simply do not exist with human drivers. The problem of managing accidents is one that has already been considered in this blog. Another would be the potential for increasing complexity of traffic regulation. Consider speed limits. Presently, speed limits tend to be fairly generic, with major highways having a default limit of 110 km/h (here in Ontario), county highways 80 or 90 km/h, and city streets 50 km/h. One could imagine matching speed limits much more precisely to local conditions. A single stretch of road could have dozens of speed limits at different points, depending on how straight they are, how narrow, how far from housing or schools, and so on. And then there are weather conditions to think about. The possibilities for regulation of autonomous cars may be nearly boundless. The introduction of autonomous cars will raise many new issues for governments and citizens to consider. My point is not that we should ban robot cars. It is just that a robot car is more than just a tool; it cannot be added to the existing traffic system without affecting that system in return. A similar story will apply to considerations of privacy.
Another point that Vanderbilt raises is whether or not autonomous cars will increase or decrease the amount of driving that occurs. Vanderbilt is skeptical that Jevons’ Paradox will apply. This is the argument that, since robot cars will likely be more fuel efficient that regular cars, that people will consume their savings by making more trips and at longer distances. As he implies, there is only so much time in the day, and people have other things they would likely prefer to do than sit in a car. So, this factor should limit any effect from the Paradox. However, as Vanderbilt concedes, the situation is not so simple. With the car driving itself, the driver’s attention is freed up for other tasks, such as sending and reading emails:
The utility of the commute could theoretically improve as people once stuck driving the car can now fire off e-mails with abandon. Then again, this increased utility might lead to more people taking advantage of the utility, thus leading to more traffic and more time spent in gridlock. At which point you might long for that other, essentially “self-driving” vehicle: the train.
In other words, the autonomous car will probably increase the productivity of each car trip for its occupants. Thus, the effective cost of the trip will decrease. It will be as if, along the lines of Jevons’ argument, you had added more time to the length of the day. In that case, people might well be willing to consume that “extra” time, while their car drives them places. In that event, fuel consumption could actually rise as a result of the introduction of robot cars.
As Vanderbilt says, neither of these observations provides a compelling reason to ban or abandon autonomous cars. However, neither should we think of the introduction of such cars as being just like the introduction of a new model year in an existing type.
Social robots January 25, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
The recent issue of the ACM Communications has an article about the social life of robots. In the article, Wright points out that people’s established view of robots is that of the solitary automaton, single-mindedly carrying out its programmed function. Think of Robby the robot or even the Terminator. Social robots, however, would be at home working in groups and even interacting with humans.
(German Federal Archive/Wikimedia Commons
As Wright points out, the potential of social robots seems clear:
In theory, collaborative robots hold enormous potential. They could augment human workers in high-risk situations like firefighting or search and rescue, boost productivity in construction and manufacturing, and even help us explore other planets.
Given the potential payoff of robots that collaborate to complete their assigned tasks, why has it taken so long for research in robots to engage with this problem?
One answer is, of course, that organizing the activities of a team of complex robots is a non-trivial endeavor:
At the most basic level, collaborative robots need access to each others’ sensory data, so they cannot only “see” via their fellow robots, but in some cases reconcile perceptual differences as well. They then must learn to merge that shared spatial data into a unified whole, so that the robots can converge effectively in a physical space.
To function as a team, robots must learn to negotiate decision-making processes in a distributed, multi-agent environment.
Unstated but also present is the issue of safety. That is, if the activities of a group of robots is difficult to co-ordinate, then the result of letting them loose is difficult to predict. Single robots can occasionally act in unpredictable ways, sometimes creating issues of safety for anyone around them. Imagine then the problems that an ensemble of robots might create.
This issue is not necessarily cause for pessimism or alarm. I suspect that diligent research can lead to an acceptable level of safety and control for collaborative robots. My suggestion would simply be that roboticists consider the safety issue from the start, and build safety features into the basic design of their robots rather than treating safety as something that can just be bolted on sometime later.
But can it play shinny? April 12, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100, STV404 , comments closed
Walking to work this morning through the new Engineering 5 building on campus, I got to see a robot play hockey.
Well, it wasn’t playing hockey, per se, but it fired a slapshot or two. It’s “the first ever robot capable of properly mimicking the professional slap shot”, a product of UW professor John McPhee and several Mechanical Engineering undergraduates. The purpose of the project and the company founded to promote it, Hockey Robotics, is to figure out the hows and whys of hockey stick breakage, particularly in the modern world of composite sticks. (For what it’s worth, McPhee is a faculty member in the Systems Design Engineering Department, and CSTV is partially linked with Systems Design, but this blog post is purely that of serendipity. I happened to catch the team filming a promotional video).
The inevitable comparison might be to wonder “will this eventually lead to robots playing hockey?” It doesn’t look like there’s any place to lace up skates or strap on a helmet, and I doubt it could hop over the boards with those legs. But in a country that is willing to move federal election debates to accommodate hockey playoffs, almost anything hockey-related is fair game for discussion. I think that in the post-Watson era, people have probably come to understand that even if computers can reduce some drudgery (like Wikipedia replacing the need to memorize facts), computers are still in no danger of replacing humans outright, at least intellectually. Of course, there might be some factory workers going back, oh, two hundred years or so, that might have something to say about robotics and automation and employment. I wonder if in a few years we might witness the Luddites vs the Robots in an ice hockey championship. Would the humans underestimate the robots, or fear them? At the famous 1972 Summit Series, the Canadian all stars were famously casual about going up against “the Big Red Machine”. Just like the Slapshot XT? Hmm.
It all sounds a bit silly, but I remember many years ago reading a young-adult book Hockeyeurs cybernétiques by the Quebec writer Denis Côté. It was about that very thing: a team of human players going up against a robotic hockey team sponsored by a robot manufacturer. The subtext of the book was of robots replacing humans, creating rampant unemployment and a new social class, les inactifs. As I recall, the story featured a three game series between the teams, described in great detail, but I what can’t remember is who won!
And what might happen if Hockey Robotics does end up helping make a better hockey stick? I’m not a hockey player and claim no great insights here, but technological improvements have not always lead to overall sporting improvements. Edward Tenner’s 1997 book Why Things Bite Back had two chapters about the revenge effects of sports technologies: The Risks of Intensification, and the increase in chronic injuries and health problems that ironically often come about from better sporting safety equipment, and The Paradoxes of Improvement, on the problems of technologies that are simply too good for sport. With regards to the first, its is often observed that athletes that participate in contact sports with considerable padding and protective equipment are often more likely to suffer serious injuries — the armor everyone wears make it easier to hit harder then necessary to complete a check or hit. As for the second, there are many instances of technology simplifying or otherwise reducing some human element giving an unfair advantage, going against the general sense of fair play expected in sport; alternately, new technologies can disrupt the game, changing the manner of play, and creating in effect a technological-sports hybrid. Composite hockey sticks that break less often doesn’t seem too risky, but what if the same sticks made accurate slapshots easier or more reliable for more players, particularly those beneath the NHL elite? Would hockey scores start to creep up? Would it change the strategies and game plans? Would it initiate and eventually escalate a war between goalie equipment and hockey stick manufacturers? Will leagues start to crack down on the “Canadian robot sticks”?
Perhaps I’m out of my depth here (offside? or two minutes for interference?) I wish the team the best of luck, and that it would generally improve, rather than detract from the game.
Send in the ‘bots March 21, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Here is a short, interesting article combining the topics of my recent posts on the 11 March earthquake in Japan and recent strides made by robots. In particular, this article notes the curious fact that, although Japan is one of the most robot-friendly nations around, it does not have robots working in the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant. Instead, a small group of human operators have been struggling to keep the power plant under control themselves.
(Image courtesy of Jiuguang Wang via Wikimedia Commons.)
One can only hope that these workers are not suffering excessively from radiation exposure. I am reminded of the “human-robots” or “bio-robots” of Chernobyl: Military personnel employed to shovel debris on top of the failed reactors in an attempt to contain the radiation leakage. Needless to say, many of those people suffered badly from radiation exposure.
In any event, why is it that the Japanese plant lacks robots, when these are common in the nuclear plants of the EU, for example? The article offers a few reasons. The first is simply bad timing:
Kim Seungho, a nuclear official who engineered robots for South Korea’s atomic power plants, said: “You have to design emergency robots for plants when they are being built so they can navigate corridors, steps and close valves.”
The Fukushima plant was built in the 1970s, well before robots were able to work on sophisticated tasks.
Of course, this point raises the issue of why robots could not have been designed to do useful work in the plant after its construction.
A second reason is simple denial:
Kim, a deputy director in nuclear technology for the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, said budget constraints and denial have kept emergency robots out of many plants in his country and around the world.
“Nuclear plant operators don’t liked to think about serious situations that are beyond human control,” he said by telephone.
There often a trade-off between efficiency and robustness in design. That is, people often prefer to have cheaper but less resilient systems, especially if they do not credibly foresee a failure of the system. The result, in the event of a failure, is that people other than the designer’s maker or owner pay the extra price. In the case of the failure of the Fukushima reactors’ safety system, the price is evacuation and possible radiation exposure for the plant’s operators and its neighbours.
Another issue might be the amount of autonomy to be granted to emergency robots. This is an emerging issue for military drones that fly armed over the territory of potential military targets. In the event of some problem, e.g., lack of communication with home base, under what circumstances would the drones be granted permission to fire without explicit authorization? A similar issue arises in the case of emergency robots in a power plant: In the event that human operators are unavailable or out of contact, what should the robots be authorized to do? I image that this problem is no small one. Still, it seems as though we should be discussing it.
Of course, given their absence, it is unclear what difference robots might have made to efforts to cope with this disaster. However, it may be a good bet that power plants currently without robots for assistance are now in the market for some.
Robots make strides March 17, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
You were probably expecting some screed on new legs for robots. In fact, today seems to be a good day for news about robots with no legs:
- The robot R2 has arrived aboard the International Space Station. It is a humanoid robot intended to act as an assistant to the astronauts aboard. Right now, only its torso is in space. Legs are to follow later this year after more testing.
- PAL Robotics (good name, no?) has introduced its REEM robot. The robot can act as a kind of concierge at airports and shopping malls, giving people directions and information about what is available and where. This version runs on wheels but perhaps legs will come in future iterations.
- Researchers have been studying how people would prefer to interact with medical robots. In particular, they have examined the question, “Would people prefer to speak to a nurse robot before or after being touched by it?” Curiously, they preferred being addressed afterward. Perhaps people are uncomfortable in treating the robot like a nurse when it is so different (it has no legs, for example) with whom they would expect a prior discussion. Or perhaps the answer is a bit of image management, a way of showing the experimenter that they are (and were) not afraid of robots. Of course, maybe people would prefer both before and after best.
- More and more robots are being deployed on Canadian farms. No mystery here: The rising dollar has made the robots cheaper to import and competitive with temporary and migrant labour. The robots perform a variety of jobs including milking cows, inspecting flowers, packaging fruit, and so on.
With food prices on the rise once again, and implicated in unrest in the Middle East and elsewhere, I suppose that any means of keeping food prices down is welcome, although the hardest hit farmers in developing nations will not see any benefits.
In any event, it is good to note that robots do not yet need to have legs in order to be useful servants. Perhaps being less anthropomorphic than a geminoid robot makes them easier to accept, for now.
Robot comedy January 24, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
Here’s an interesting TEDWomen talk by Heather Knight premiering a robotic comedy routine. The robot’s name is “Data“, after the Star Trek character. The routine is not bad, containing some old jokes, and even challenges good taste a little with the “New Jersey hunters” joke. Data does a decent job and gets some laughs, although its timing could use some polish. It is not clear from the video how the robot is adjusting to its feedback, so we don’t learn much about comedy from this particular performance. No doubt more information will be coming.
(Image courtesy of Jiuguang Wang via Wikimedia Commons.)
Should we be thrilled or worried about robot entertainers? In her new book, Alone together, Sherry Turkle argues that we are starting to becoming too dependent on robots for our social relationships. The burden of the book appears to be that maintaining a relationship with a robot is too risk-free since the human half gets all the say. If we can just live in the company of robots and win all the arguments, the challenge and richness of genuine human company will become lost on us, to our detriment:
“Dependence on a robot presents itself as risk free,” Turkle writes. “But when one becomes accustomed to ‘companionship’ without demands, life with people may seem overwhelming.” A blind date can be a fraught proposition when there’s a robot at home that knows exactly what we need. And all she needs is a power outlet.
The argument is plausible as far as it goes. However, it seems to assume that people have a strong and coherent set of wants that they look to robots or others to fulfill. That may well be true in some cases, such as sexuality. However, people often are not clear about what they want and look to external sources for guidance or inspiration. A simple sexbot cannot occupy supply such a need, except in the case of particularly deficient individuals. The Mr. Data from Star Trek would be more appealing in this respect.
Anyway, the question remains: Should we be concerned about robots encroaching on human roles in the arts (and life in general), or can robots enrich human life through participation in the arts?