Posted by mike in Computers,News,Science at 11:51 pm on May 8, 2007

A friend I used to work with in the OpCenter sent me a link to a Washington Post article on robots that I found very interesting. It started out reminding me of a selection from The Mind’s I:

The colonel ordered the test stopped.

Why? asked Tilden. What’s wrong?

The colonel just could not stand the pathos of watching the burned, scarred and crippled machine drag itself forward on its last leg.

This test, he charged, was inhumane.

(See “The Soul of the Mark III Beast” in The Mind’s I–which, incidentally, I would consider to be one of the two most influential books from my high school days, along with the previously mentioned Sirens of Titan.)

The article presents several interesting examples of people wanting to ascribe human traits to their robot assistants, and asks lots of neat philosophical questions that many of us might actually have to come up with answers to at some point in our lifetimes.

“The 2 million personal bots in use around the world in 2004 are expected to grow to 7 million next year,” it claims, but this makes me wonder: Where are all of these robots they’re talking about? They can’t all be vacuum cleaners, can they? I’d prefer to imagine 7 million ASIMOs walking around myself, as spooky at that might initially be.

Humans respond so readily to Kismet, created by Cynthia Breazeal, that graduate students working in the lab at night have been known to put up a curtain between themselves and the bot, Brooks reports. They couldn’t stand the way it seemed to gaze around and stare at them. It broke their concentration. These humans are as sophisticated about robots as anyone on Earth. Yet even they are freaked by Kismet’s lifelike behavior.

And, of course, whenever I start thinking about the topic of futuretech, I get to wondering: where the hell are the flying cars we’ve been promised in popular fiction for so long? This in turn brings to mind Avery Brooks lamenting the lack of flying cars in the early 21st century in a classic IBM commercial:

There are signs that we might actually get flying cars some day, although “as of spring 2007, no flying prototypes exist,” so we’ve probably got quite a wait still ahead of us. I expect it’ll take even longer for them to get personalities, unfortunately.

Comments (2)

2 Responses to “Soul of the Beast”:

  • As I was sitting at the exit to my parking lot today, a woman who, like all too many drivers, was focused only on the 3 feet directly in front of her vehicle cut the left turn and attempted to barrel into the parking lot on the wrong side of the road. As I was sitting still, I had no chance to get out of her way. I quickly removed my sunglasses and braced for the impact and the airbag. At the last second, this mouth-breathing, deer-in-the-headlights moron finally saw my vehicle when it came into her 3ft focus range. Amazingly, she swerved just enough to miss me by an inch. I am now picturing this sorry excuse for a driver behind the wheel of a flying car.

    I think I need a drink.

  • A great example of why the two innovations (self-sufficient robots and flying cars) will need to coincide with each other for us to truly realize the flying car utopia we’ve been promised for so long. Let her sit and drool while the car handles every possible decision on her behalf, unburdening her from using that useless mass between her ears while simultaneously unburdening the rest of us from having to deal with her incompetence.