Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Thots On Bots

This month's cover story in Popular Science gives a snapshot of the current status of robotics. The cover teases, "The Future of Robots: YOUR HELPER BOT HAS ARRIVED"... and in smaller print, America's First Humanoid.

In fiction and in film, we have been long fascinated with the idea of robots. Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov continually returned to the theme, with stories that were later re-created in films like Bicentennial Man (Robin Williams) and I, Robot (Will Smith). The Terminator (Gov. Schwarzeneggar) films are fanciful re-enactment of a dark future where the robots have an uprising and strive to eliminate the humans they evolved from.

Amusingly, one article in this month's Pop Science is titled "Rise of the Helpful Machines", in a direct tribute to the Terminator film subtitled, "Rise of the Machines." This and the other articles here strive to give us the current pulse on robotic advances, specifically in the realm of humanoid-type robots.

Currently, Japan and South Korea are in the lead with regard to building the ultimate humanoid, but Virginia Tech gets its share of ink here for the progress they are making. Dennis Hong of VT states that "a full-sized humanoid is the Holy Grail of robotics." And the article provides an overview of the various advances, and problems, this branch of robotics is wrestling with.

Somehow, all this robot talk brings to mind an article I read 25 years ago in The Futurist magazine about robots in our future. The writer exclaimed, enthusiastically, that in one hundred years we would all have a personal robot. I was at an apartment building in South Minneapolis looking out a window at a dumpster diving street person, and wondered, "Will he have a personal robot?"

25 years have passed, and though in academic communities the enthusiasm for robots remains unabated, one wonders how these personal robots will assist in eliminating the hunger which one billion people experience daily. One wonders if the personal robots we are all going to have only refers to the "we" who live in the civilized world. Or, just precisely, how will we all have personal robots when we don't even all have jobs, or homes?

Maybe the hard working middle class can work longer hours to pay the bills for their personal robots who stay home and teach their children how to play soccer. I can envision a future government program called "Cash for Clunkers" to help people get rid of their older robots in order to buy new ones and keep the robotics industry vibrant and growing. Robot sales will be good for the economy, they'll insist.

The current work in robotics is directed toward helping support the surging population of elderly in this country. We'll have wheelchairs with robotic arms, forklifts to get us in and out of bed, and other such personal assistants for when we're veteran grandparents ourselves. Somehow, all this robo-tech is not what I pictured for that fast approaching period when Baby Boomers begin to agglomerate in nursing homes. I always assumed our bed pans would be rotated by human hands, not machines.

Oh well... the research continues. Their even working on machines that will replace doctors. Anyone for robotic brain surgery? I'm really not too excited about getting to my lobotomy appointment right now. Unless they bring me in by robo-cop, I will just take a pass, thank you.

Meantime, have an electrifying day.

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