Robot Evolution
December 16, 2004 9:04 AM   Subscribe

Honda has upgraded Asimo. They've added jogging, autonomous continuous movement, some new joint designs, and better intelligence, expanding the range of humanoid robots, which includes, the Qrio from Sony, Isamu, and Toyota's offering that entered the fray earlier this year (previously discussed). (More)
posted by effwerd (27 comments total)

 
These robots present a far more finished appearance than their research and development kin, like Kismet, Cog, or Lucy (pdf) a robot that can tell the difference between an apple and a bananna (also previously discussed). And let's not forget the Shadow Biped or the offerings from Sarcos.

They present a more civil demeanor than their military kin, like the Talon from Foster-Miller, or the Packbot from iRobot. Military robotics covers attack theory, recruitment and training, and, of course, actual combat.

The differences between the myriad robot design paradigms has not escaped comparison and analysis. When you consider American fare such as a recently discussed home security robot, or even the Roomba, you can see a distinct lack of anthropomorphization or any attempt at simulating a human friendly form. While the Japanese have wholly embraced the fun and practicality of such design. Are Americans possibly afraid of the cliché prognostications from bad scifi?

If you can't wait to see what the future of robotics holds, you can always build your own or just buy a toy, like Robosapien.
posted by effwerd at 9:05 AM on December 16, 2004


is that pronounced "awesom-o?"
posted by blendor at 9:19 AM on December 16, 2004


That sony qrio is the cutest thing i've ever seen. I want one so bad.

I also think it's great these japanese companies are investing millions into things which, for the forseeable future, are just toys.
posted by derbs at 9:26 AM on December 16, 2004


Ick, and again ick.

Self-link may I? Sez about all I have to say on the subject.
posted by adamgreenfield at 9:26 AM on December 16, 2004


That is stunningly awesome, cool, and excellent. I really want one of these. He could be my little buddy and we could go places and, like, do stuff together.

Also love the test pattern. Shout out to all the kids--this is what you used to see on TV before there were 157 channels running 24/7. (Actually, before that it was the Indian Chief, remember?)
posted by Turtles all the way down at 9:42 AM on December 16, 2004


Can they do anything useful yet?
posted by clubfoote at 9:42 AM on December 16, 2004



...We are seeing the tip of the iceberg right now, because robotic replacement of human workers in every employment sector is about to accelerate rapidly. Combine that with a powerful trend pushing high-paying IT jobs to India. Combine it with the rapid loss of call-center jobs to India. When the first wave of robots and offshore production cut in to the factory workforce in the 20th century, the slack was picked up by service sector jobs. Now we are about to see the combined loss of massive numbers of service-sector jobs, most of the remaining jobs in factories, and many white collar jobs, all at the same time.

When a significant portion of the normal American population is permanently living in government welfare dormitories because of unemployment, what we will have is a third-world nation. These citizens will be imprisoned by unemployment in their own society. If you are an adult in America and you do not have a job, you are flat out of luck. That is how our economy is structured today -- you cannot live your life unless you have a job. Many people -- perhaps a majority of Americans -- will find themselves out of luck in the coming decades.

The arrival of humanoid robots should be a cause for celebration. With the robots doing most of the work, it should be possible for everyone to go on perpetual vacation. Instead, robots will displace millions of employees, leaving them unable to find work and therefore destitute. I believe that it is time to start rethinking our economy and understanding how we will allow people to live their lives in a robotic nation.


Don't forget Robotic Nation.

Question 1 - Why did you write these articles? What is your goal?

My goal is very simple. I firmly believe that the rapid evolution of computer technology (as described in Robotic Nation) will bring us smart robots starting in a 2030 time frame. These robots will take over approximately 50% of the jobs in the U.S. economy over the course of just a decade or two. Something on the order of 50 million people will be unemployed. See Robotic Nation for details.

The economy may adjust and invent new jobs for those 50 million unemployed workers, but it will not do so instantaneously. What we will have is a period of economic turmoil. All of those unemployed workers will be in a very bad spot. The economy as a whole will suffer from this turmoil and the downward economic spiral it causes. No one will benefit when this happens.

We are intelligent people living in a modern, high-tech society. Robots are inevitable. Instead of letting this robotic revolution happen uncontrollably and then reacting to the chaos that ensues, what I am proposing is that we look at the problem rationally and design a systematic solution...


Robotic Nation FAQ
posted by y2karl at 9:45 AM on December 16, 2004


These things will never have the cachet of a real person when it comes to unwrapping the kids' presents, or collecting all those pesky cell phones.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:55 AM on December 16, 2004


I can't wait until these robots rebel against their masters!
posted by asianmack at 9:55 AM on December 16, 2004


The was amazing/creepy. Asimo just jumped over the uncanny valley.

*starts working furiously on a handheld EMP prototype*
posted by gwint at 10:13 AM on December 16, 2004


clubfoote, the "fun and practicality" link talks about a useful robot. And Roomba is a vacuum.

Personally, I want a robot for my pets. It would need a camera and an internet connection so I can make VOIP calls directly to it and talk to them. Two tanks for cat and dog kibble. One tank for water (with a water filter, of course). And a much smaller one for treats. It would need some kind of hand/arm-like device to handle the kibble bowls, and it would be best if it could reach up about 4 feet so it could handle the bowl on my dining table (if the cat kibble is left on the floor, the dog will always eat it). And it might as well have a vacuum on the bottom so it can pick up my dog's prolific shedding. It would also be nice if it could toss a ball and dangle a cat toy. Maybe even a replaceable carpet back so my cat can shred it (as a sign of love). The ultimate petbot would also have a leash and be able to walk my dog. With a price point of less than 3K.
posted by effwerd at 10:14 AM on December 16, 2004


We are seeing the tip of the iceberg right now, because robotic replacement of human workers in every employment sector is about to accelerate rapidly. Combine that with a powerful trend pushing high-paying IT jobs to India

My advice to my daughter is going to be: choose as a career something that you love doing; something that utilizes your unique blend of personality, intelligence, creativity and passion for whatever interests you, whether it be tropical fish or unmanned missions to Mars. These are the last things that will be replaced by robots, mechanical or cybernetic.

And these are precisely the things that will elevate equally talented youngsters from so called third world countries. And that is as it should be, in my opinion.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 10:44 AM on December 16, 2004


These things are amazing technical achievements, but what is the value of artificial humans? We already have real humans. Aren't robots like Roomba and PackBot far simpler, more efficient, and more useful than something that hobbles around like an old man?
posted by newton at 11:00 AM on December 16, 2004


The logic behind humanoid robots is that it will be easier for them to interact with living spaces designed around humans.
posted by effwerd at 11:18 AM on December 16, 2004


Best illustrated here.
posted by effwerd at 11:19 AM on December 16, 2004


The Marshall Brain quotes have come out in force. It's interesting to note the "lesson" in his story, Manna (as well as many other stories): once technological development of robots is inevitable, the way such technology is used will become the major issue of this century. One can easily argue that all technological development is inevitable, and that our questions should revolve around how the fruits of that development should be used, not if.

As for the Uncanny Valley- it is not insurmountable. The knowledge could be used for all sorts of things, good and bad, just like everything else out there.
posted by Maxson at 11:20 AM on December 16, 2004


These things are amazing technical achievements, but what is the value of artificial humans? We already have real humans.

Because through the effort of making artificial humans we inevitably find ourselves defining what *is* human. Which is special, magical and ultimately unknowable.

Show me a conscious robot and you'll have shown me my real little buddy.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 11:50 AM on December 16, 2004


It doesn't really matter if your android houseboy can reach your cupboards when it can't tell a mug from a bowl, so these robots will be utterly useless for a long time.

I don't think everyday technology of the future will be like this at all. For example, it would probably be easier and cheaper to build a cupboard that both washes and stores the dishes. Or an applicance that extrudes bioplastic dinnerware on demand, and reclaims it when you're done.

I predict that the idea of humanoid machines will eventually be abandoned (except for robot prostitutes - that's the killer app).
posted by newton at 12:06 PM on December 16, 2004


whether it be tropical fish or unmanned missions to Mars. These are the last things that will be replaced by robots, mechanical or cybernetic
Erm, what? Space monkeys, perhaps?
posted by Sparx at 12:32 PM on December 16, 2004


I predict that the idea of humanoid machines will eventually be abandoned

My sense is that they essentially have been abandoned with the glaring exception of Japan. They really seem to like robots over there.
posted by gwint at 12:40 PM on December 16, 2004


*starts working furiously on a handheld EMP prototype*

Wants one, badly. "The brand new ASMIOblivion handheld directed EMP self-defense weapon - the Taser of the robotic world!"
posted by FormlessOne at 2:28 PM on December 16, 2004


As a Ph.D. student at the CMU Robotics Institute, my money is firmly placed on a future rather like the one Newton envisions. Humanoid robots won't be more practical than good old fashioned human labor for a long, long time. If you don't believe me, think of all the things which could have been completely automated already even without humanoid robotic technology, and aren't: fast food and long-haul railroads spring to mind immediately. Sure, robots build cars in factories, but the steps between that and Commander Data are HUGE:

So, first we have the technological milestones:

Things that have long, complicated, precise motion sequences (this definitely includes burger flipping) are exceedingly difficult to make reliably.

Things that execute this motion on the basis of ambiguous sensory stimuli (i.e. what the real world looks like) are hard to make now for specific applications, and impossible for general use. I would say we are still awaiting the Kuhnian paradigm shift that makes this possible.

Things that have to have compelling interactions with other humans are also a long way off. This problem and the last one are generally considered "AI-complete" among my peers.

Then there are the more mundane engineering problems: you have to make these things cheap and practical enough for prolonged, maintenance-free use. This will require advances in materials science (joints and servos for robot use wear out promptly), power systems (the humble battery---essentially unimproved for about a century---is an ENORMOUS impediment to practical robotics), sensors, and computing systems (probably the easiest to fix, but humanoids will have lots to think about). Among others.

So, all told, the millions and millions of jobs taken over by humanoid robots: I'd bet bottom dollar that it's fantasy. The introduction of the microchip will prove to have been a much more revolutionary event than the coming of non-research humanoids, and that didn't exactly cause social collapse.

These robots, however, will absolutely not be abandoned, at least not in research. Humanoids give robotics researchers a lot of juicy problems to work on.
posted by tss at 3:34 PM on December 16, 2004


...of all the things which could have been completely automated already even without humanoid robotic technology, and aren't: fast food and long-haul railroads spring to mind immediately.


The phrases food poisoning and pedestrian was struck by a train then spring to mind immediately.
posted by y2karl at 4:30 PM on December 16, 2004


Good. Now think about how that relates to the practicality of using humanoid robots in all sorts of mundane work applications.
posted by tss at 4:51 PM on December 16, 2004


tss: just wondering-- what's your prediction for getting to an Azimov-"I Robot"-like technology? 25 years away? 50? 100? 200? Because we're still just talking "it's just a matter of time", yes?
posted by gwint at 6:21 PM on December 16, 2004


I just watched the movie I, Robot.

Anyone have a way to get ahold of will smith?

Hold me, I am scared.
posted by nearo at 12:27 PM on December 17, 2004


My predictions:

The main mechanical problems will probably be ironed out in 50 years, especially if muscle-like actuators are perfected.

We'll have some pretty clever computer vision algorithms, which will chiefly work with the help of vast amounts of experiential information. Robots will have to carry around and modify large databases that describe, in some sense, how things and events look. These techniques will be pretty effective for general purpose use--you'll be able to say "get the newspaper," for instance, and it will work. Improvements in language technologies and speech recognition will also proceed apace, allowing robots to follow orders of mild sophistication. Robotic technology will be a boon for the disabled.

As for batteries: who knows? I hope they'll be improved or supplanted. Maybe nano-turbines or fuel cells are the answer.

Here's the real problem, though: I don't think we know what thinking is yet. Philosophers have worked on it for thousands of years, and it's still anyone's guess. What exactly are you doing when you're making your own decisions, on widely-varying timescales, about what your goals are and how you're going to achieve them? It's easier to make robots whose tasks are well-specified problems: build a car, help elderly people navigate a nursing home, play soccer, etc. When the goal is "exist", or "be a beneficial member of society", or even "be a good robot servant", where do you begin? These goals are too vague to be meaningful for engineers. I think they'll stay vague for another century or two.

Do keep in mind that you could ask ten more of my fellow students and get ten different answers.
posted by tss at 4:31 PM on December 17, 2004


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