Remember when robots were a bit crap? Not any more

I’ve been let down by robots.

When I was young (the 1980s), future robot predictions were all the rage. I was promised robot servants that would clean and cook and generally take care of business, whilst I flew around in my hover car. I grew up on a diet of Transformers, Robo Jox and dodgy dubs of Japanese mecha anime… and then I saw Robocop.

But robots totally failed to live up to their promise. Sure they can build cars and play chess, but weren’t robots supposed to be exploring space, fighting wars and cooking us meals by now?

Well it turns out they’re starting too. Maybe not the cooking bit.

I built my own robot when I was a kid. It was pretty crap. But I didn’t care, because I knew that when I was older, like 12, I’d have my own C3PO, but slightly more badass, like a solid-gold robot Mr T. It didn’t happen, and as I got older I was aware that the world around me was remaining distinctly robot-free. My robot dream was dying. The final nail in the coffin came in the late 90’s, that nail was called Robot Wars. Robot Wars was hyped for weeks, we were promised armoured robot gladiators duking it out in an industrial arena with chainsaws and massive drills. Instead we got flimsy boxes on wheels with ineffectual flappy little hammers built by sociopaths and their offspring. Even the expensive robots built by the TV show itself were shit.

My interest was piqued now and again by the massively expensive robots created by tech companies like Honda’s ASIMO, but they were still disappointingly pants. ASIMO cost about 17 billion dollars (probably) and he could barely even walk. How the hell are robots going to explore space, fight crime or travel back in time to end the human resistance if they can’t even walk properly? If all that money and engineering expertise couldn’t even make a robot that could tackle stairs then I was convinced that robots would never be a part of my life. With ASIMO I learnt that walking is actually extremely complex task.

That fall cost 6 billion dollars (probably)

That was it; dream totally dead, I forgot all about the mechanical fuckers.

However, then I saw this video below. It’s of a robot called Big Dog, built by a company called Boston Dynamics in partnership with NASA and Harvard University. It’s going to be used by the US armed forces to carry stuff, and oppress oil-rich countries.

Sure it looks totally creepy, like a headless dog, and that noise doesn’t sound particularly futuristic, but its conquered walking pretty well. Not convinced? Check out 0:35 when the guy kicks it, hard, and it stays on all fours. Then at 1:31 when it walks over ice. Sure if flails around like its been drinking Skol Super but it stays on its feet. That’s more than can be said for most people walking on ice, and my cat can’t make it across a polished wooden floor without face planting.

OK, maybe we’re not quite on the verge of creating Cylons, even the crappy ones from the 70s. But we’re getting there. A few weeks after I saw Big Dog I saw this fella.

He’s called Robonaut; he’s currently living in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle Discovery and will be flown to the International Space Station on February 24th. He’s going to be used initially to help run science tests in the laboratory, but the idea is that he could eventually be used for all kinds of activities including the more dangerous ones like repair work on the outside of the space station. He’s pretty clever, for an American, and is almost as dextrous as a sober human; he can even read a newspaper (he prefers the outrageous right-wing ones). This guy is approaching the 1980s robot dream, they should totally have given him a big red Cylon eye though.

There’s also a range of terrifying war robots currently in action, or soon to be killing humans in exotic countries, probably in the name of freedom, or energy policy. They include those predator drones we’re all so fond off, and robots called Talons and Swords that can roll over the ground on caterpillar tracks dishing out death to puny humans, they even look a bit like mini versions of the Hunter Killers from Terminator. There’s even a company called Cyberdyne Technologies that’s working on cyborg exoskeletons that could be ‘totally autonomous’. Absolutely nothing about that sounds ill advised.

OK, maybe not so scary, more ‘70s vision of the future disco-camp’

So robots are beginning to take over our world. But slowly right? Maybe not. Ray Kurzweil is a technology genius and futurist (he’s awesome, check his shit out). He often talks about the ‘law of accelerating returns’ and the exponential growth of technological advancement. He argues that the pace of innovation of any technology accelerates, so that it may take a while for a technology to become established, but then it will develop at an increasing speed.

Take mobile phones, my first one had a tiny grey and black screen and basically just called people and sent texts, new models came out, but nothing much changed for a few years. Then we got colour screens. Then after a while we got cameras. The cameras became better, and the screens bigger and more colourful. Now we have smart phones that can do all kinds of shit. The phones of today make the phones of a few years ago look ancient. But the pace at which phones changed was exponential, it started slowly then rocketed forwards, in a few years time who knows what phones will be like? (Hint, Ray Kurzweil does)

And the same pattern of improvement is likely to happen with robots. The first advances have taken decades, but we should start to see more and more innovations happening over a shorter time scale, until we’re suddenly surrounded by super advanced robots, probably all with Apple logos on their faces. At which time they’ll probably wipe us out for the crimes against taste and decency perpetrated by Lady Gaga, and they’ll be right to do so. Bring on the Robot Apocalypse.

So what does all this have to do with astrobiology, probably no one is asking? Well firstly, robots, like the Mars Rovers, are currently used to explore other planets in our Solar System, they’re great at doing this because they don’t get bored easily, are relatively tough and don’t need to eat much. As robots become more advanced and cheaper to build, we’re likely to see more of them exploring space, particularly cool locations like Europa.

But more importantly, many scientists and thinkers have predicted that artificial intelligence can and will be created by humanity, and that it will quickly become more advanced than we are, Ray Kurzweil called this moment ‘the Singularity’. I’ll explore this much more in a future post, but these intelligences, sometimes called Artilects, may well become the dominant form of life on Earth and may spread into space. Intelligent alien civilizations may even create their own Artilects, in fact biological life may be a short stage in the evolution of intelligent civilizations, soon giving way to artificial intelligence. Perhaps one day robots from Earth may meet robots from an alien civilization. Sounds a bit too fantastic? I’ll write future posts about this, as there are serious thinkers behind such ideas, for now, I’ll leave you with this:

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