Friday, August 21, 2009

The gap

The gap between science fiction and science fact is closing, and closing fast. In fact, the technology is advancing so quickly that some people are already worried about what will happen when robots become as emotional as we are. Will they turn against their creators, as Capek predicted? In the new Hollywood blockbuster, I, Robot (which is loosely based on an eponymous collection of Asimov's short stories), Will Smith plays a detective investigating the murder of a famous scientist. Despite the fail-safe mechanism built into the robots, which prevents them from harming humans, the detective suspects that the scientist was killed by a robot. His investigation leads him to discover an even more serious threat to the human race.

Commercial products

Commercial products like the Aibo still have some way to go before they have the quasi-human capacities of 'Robbie', the child-caring robot envisaged by Asimovin one of his earliest short-stories, but the technology is moving fast. Scientists around the world are already beginning to develop the components for more advanced sociable robots, such as emotional recognition systems and emotional expression systems.
Emotions are vital to human interaction, so any robot that has to interact naturally with a human will need to be able to recognise human expressions of emotion and to express its own emotions in ways that humans can recognise. One of the pioneers in this area of research (which is known as 'affective computing') is Cynthia Breazeal, a roboticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has built an emotionally-expressive humanoid head called Kismet. Kismet has moveable eyelids, eyes and lips which allow him to make a variety of emotional expressions. When left alone, Kismet looks sad, but when he detects a human face he smiles, inviting attention. If the carer moves too fast, a look of fear warns that something is wrong. Human parents who play with Kismet cannot help but respond sympathetically to these simple forms of emotional behaviour.
Another emotionally-expressive robot called WE-4R has been built by Atsuo Takanishi and colleagues at Waseda University in Japan. Whereas Kismet is limited to facial expressions and head movements, WE-4R can also move its torso and wave its arms around to express its emotions.

Robots of the Future

When the Czech playwright Karel Capek sat down in 1920 to write a play abouthumanoid machines that turn against their creators, he decided to call his imaginary creations 'robots', from the Czech word for 'slave labour'. Ever since then, our thinking about robots, whether fictional or real, has been dominated by the two key ideas in Capek's play. Firstly, robots are supposed to do the boring and difficult jobs that humans can't do or don't want to do. Secondly, robots are potentially dangerous.
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These two ideas remain influential, but not everyone accepts them. The first dissenting voice was that of the great Russian-American science-fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, who was born the same year that Capek wrote his notorious play. In 1940, barely two decades later, while others were still slavishly reworking Capek's narrative about nasty robots taking over the world, Asimov was already asking what practical steps humanity might take to avoid this fate. And instead of assuming that robots would be confined to boring and dangerous jobs, Asimov imaged a future in which robots care for our children, and strike up friendships with us.
From the perspective of the early twenty-first century, it might seem that Capek was right and that Asimov was an idealistic dreamer. After all, most currently-existing robots are confined to doing nasty, boring and dangerous jobs, right? Wrong. According to the 2003 World Robotics Survey produced by the United Nations