This week Terminator Genisys, Schwarzeneggered back into the cinema to remind us that robots spell the doom of us all. But how close are we really to needing our John Connor?
Sometimes research into robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) can seem scary. Even Stephen Hawking has said that artificial intelligence could end us. But all you need to do is look a little closer and you’ll see there’s no need to be scared. You’ll find it’s useful, fascinating and more often than not a little bizarre.
For example, in June of 2014 a computer program was able to convince people talking to it that it was a person, and not just a collection of ones and zeroes. That sounds terrifying; computers are nearly as smart as we are! They can blend in! However, it only hoodwinked 10 out of 30 people, and only if they thought they were speaking to a 13 year-old boy from Ukraine, who didn’t have a full grasp of English. It’s a giant, impressive leap forward, but we won’t be looking for glowing red lights behind the eyes of our bus drivers anytime soon.
Sometimes however, robots can be creepy. In his quest to understand humanity Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro decided that first completely obvious, and not at all unhinged step was to build a robot version of himself. So he created the Geminoid. It lands right in the “uncanny valley”, that space where something is almost human, but not quite that creeps us out for reasons science can’t fully explain. That doesn’t stop him building his people-bots though. His idea is that eventually you could control a robot version of yourself to be in two places at once. Just like that forgettable Bruce Willis film Surrogates.
Then like something out of Blade Runner, there’s the fact that computers have started dreaming. Sort of. It’s Google’s Deep Dreaming program. You give the software an image, or a video, and the software, over time, will tweak the video to look like other images it’s seen before. So long narrow shapes become tentacles and for some reason, people in profile are often shifted to something vaguely rooster like. It’s actually gorgeous and worth checking out. Except when it was fed a scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That just got weird…well, weirder than that film is anyway.
More often than not however, robots are just here to improve our lives, even the word robot comes from the Czech word for labourer. Texting is already beginning to rely on artificial intelligence, like when the software attempts to guess what word you want next based on what you’ve previously written. There’s more than that though, there are scientists who are already starting to work on what they hope will become robot surgeons. These robots are little squares of metal that can fold into little shapes and be brought around by a magnet. They’re a proof of concept for an idea that little robots could enter the body, do what they need to, and then dissolve, just like stitches can. And folding squares are just a smidge less scary than 2 metre tall Austrian killbots.
When speaking of helpful robots, there’s the Boston Dynamics robotics labs, and MIT’s Cheetah, both of which receive military funding. These are four legged robots designed to be pack mules, to carry gear across difficult terrain. They’re more adorable than anything else. When you watch Boston Dynamics’ most recent robot Spot get kicked, you feel bad for it, and are happy when it can right itself. MIT’s Cheetah robot can run at speeds of about 8 kilometres per hour and jump 40 cm high obstacles. It’s very cool, but still not scary as it could be stopped by a moderately sized dog gate. Or even a moderately sized dog.
Robots can scare us because they are very smart in areas we are not. They can calculate faster than any human could ever hope to. However, robots can’t invent. They lack the creativity and imagination which allowed us to rise to the dominant species on this planet. Until they can be given that, they’ll always be closer to calculators than to us. But if you’re still not convinced, if you’re still scared of them, go watch Robot Football, and you’ll never worry again.
Featured Image via nightxade.com