|Flesh and Machines|
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Robots at Work
Rodney Brooks, a leading roboticist and computer science professor, believes that robots in the future will probably be nothing like such all-knowing brain machines as 2001's HAL, nor will they resemble the sleek cyborgs of other Hollywood nightmares. Rather, they will be simple, ubiquitous, curious little machines that will have more in common with humans than one might think. Brooks, and his fellow researchers, suggest that the focus of much AI and robot research has been to develop superhuman devices that operate at the highest intellectual levels. Its better, he says, to make a lot of simple, cheap robots that can perform only a few tasks, but do them well.
Science & Nature editor Laura Wood visited MIT's Artificial Intelligence lab and personally met the humanoid robots Cog and Kismet. She later conducted this interview via email with Rodney Brooks.
Interview with Rodney Brooks
Laura Wood: First of all, I really enjoyed your book. You are one of the robotics pioneers, and so I was very excited to find out that at last you were writing a trade book to give readers a firsthand description of how robotics has been developing and where it is going. What prompted you to write a book now?
Rodney Brooks: There is a confluence of three things happening in robotics right now that I thought were worth describing to the world. First, the sort of work we did on simple mobile autonomous robots back in the '80s has now been refined and developed in corporate research labs so that is starting to hit the consumer market -- just as the first personal computers started to appear in 1978 or so, now the first generation of home robots, robot toys, lawn mowers, and floor cleaners are starting to be sold through retail outlets. Second, more recent work in university research labs has led to robots that are able to interact with humans in such lifelike ways that they illuminate the question of whether we are anything more than machines and whether we will soon be able to build sentient machines. And third, robotic technology is now being implanted in people to compensate for losses caused by diseases, and we find ourselves on the threshold of roboticizing our own bodies. Since I have been involved in aspects of all of these developments, I thought I had some interesting perspectives to share with readers.
Laura Wood: I have to say that in particular I have been interested in the notion of embodiment -- that these artificial creatures are physical beings interacting in the real world -- and how that relates to ideas of robots learning and evolving in ways akin to biological evolution. I also enjoyed your discussion of the possibility of machines such as these becoming conscious at some point. If human consciousness arises out of physical processes, then we cannot say a priori that machines will never gain some type of "machine consciousness." Frankly, I do believe that such artificial persons, if they come to be, should have rights.
Rodney Brooks: While I think this is a question we will need to address in the future, I think we will have some marginally simpler ethical issues to deal with in the shorter term -- over the next 10 to 20 years. We will be building robots much simpler than humans but perhaps as complex in some ways as insects or simple vertebrates. Under what conditions should we extend our ethical treatment of such animals to these robots -- what will it take to convince us that they are alive? Concurrently with that issue we will also be adopting more and more technology into our bodies -- what sorts of technology will be "fair" and what sorts "unfair"? For instance, in 20 years will we insist that teenagers switch off their brain-implanted wireless Internet connections while they take the SATs, or will we expect every student to have one, just as today we expect them all to have their own calculator?
Laura Wood: When I was at the MIT A.I. lab, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Cog and Kismet. I managed to get Cog to hold my hand, and when I was playing with Kismet, his current graduate student thanked me for keeping him entertained. I told her a story about how when I was moving apartments I had packed a Furby into one of the boxes. I think the movers were a little disturbed when this tiny voice started protesting "I'm bored!" I started to get this vision of robots who need at least some attention from us -- much the way pets do. Will programmers need to consider how much time people will spend with their robots when creating these interacting machines?
Rodney Brooks: I have been involved in developing robotic toys at iRobot Corporation, a company I cofounded back in 1990. We developed My Real Baby, which was marketed by Hasbro. MRB has an emotional system that makes for interesting play experiences for children -- the toy responds differently to the same sorts of stimulus, depending on what mood it is in. It is of course interesting to design such systems as toys, but a more interesting question is whether more complex robots will have "emotional lives," not for their entertainment or play value but as a way of providing regulation of their activities. Animals and humans have evolved with emotional systems playing just such roles. We may end up building emotional systems into our robots so that people can both understand them and influence the robots in the same ways that they influence each other.
Laura Wood: I often found you making points in the book that I had wondered about when reading other books on future technology. I got a chuckle out of your observation that people freezing their heads make an assumption that future generations would want to revive dozens (hundreds?) of late-20th- and early-21st-century humans. You conclude in your book that technology seems to be heading in the direction of incorporating machine elements (implants, prosthetics, and so on) into human bodies. Do you anticipate that this will happen so gradually that society won't really be aware that we're turning into cyborgs until a significant percentage of the population is already part machine?
Rodney Brooks: That is exactly what I think will happen. Like many technologies, this one is going to sneak up on us. We all know people with hip replacements, and we may know people who have cochlear implants. More and more people are going to get implants to handle more and more diseases, ranging from Parkinson's to blindness. And more and more people will have prosthetic devices to compensate for stroke damage. Before too long, people are going to start having implants to augment themselves, not just repair damage. More and more people will be part flesh and part machine.
Laura Wood: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Rodney Brooks: While there is an optimistic interpretation of all these technologies, I think there are a lot of ethical issues that we will all have to face over the next 10 to 20 years. It behooves us all to understand what is happening so that together we can decide, as a species, just how we want these technologies to be deployed.
Beginners Books |
Hobby Robots |
Robot Sports |
Robot Minds |