I intended to write this blog about some of the amazing, helpful, and scary things that robots can do today, but even a quick look at the information out there demonstrates that robot is already an archaic term, like calling a car a horseless carriage.
There’s simply no way that everything we’ve come to expect from robots in sci-fi novels and movies will exist independently within whatever bodies we put robots in for the foreseeable future. They are as dependent on the computing environment that surrounds them as living organisms are on their ecosystems.
Robots can’t do anything better than a computer except move. And the various species of computerized electronic devices now covers a spectrum comparable to that of living organisms: We have everything from the equivalent of one-celled animals, such as microscopic, single-function sensors, to highly-evolved super-computers and computers that, when moved around on a dolly, can visit TV sets to humiliate humans on game shows. In other words, robots are one of just many species of life-like computer organisms.
Here are just some of the behaviors in the computer kingdom that exist today:
- Tap into your subconscious. Electroencephalography (EEG), which has been around for almost 100 years, records brain activity through electrodes on the scalp. However, as scientists point out, only a small part of the brain activity measured by the EEG is under the sensoree’s voluntary control. Other parts, like emotions and likes and dislikes, are also captured. And everyone’s EEG happens to be as unique as a fingerprint.
Traditionally, that hasn’t been an issue because EEGs have been the exclusive domain of research labs and hospitals. But in 2009, EEG escaped from the lab and out into the wild, in the form of a an EEG device intended for gamers to levitate, Luke Skywalker-style, an object in a Star Wars simulation game using only their minds. A publicly-released programming platform followed (there are now over 40 different games developed for it) and a Jurassic Park’s worth of unintended consequences suddenly became possible.
- Hack your thoughts, beliefs, and your bank PIN. Recently, researchers successfully launched a mock spyware attack through an EEG game in which they were able to reveal information about the user’s ”month of birth, area of living, knowledge of persons known to the user, PIN numbers, name of the user’s bank, and the user’s preferred bank card.”
- Support life for lower robotic organisms. One of the problems with tiny computers is that there’s no room to store a lot of power. Anyone who’s had a first-generation GPS-equipped phone remembers how quickly these tiny chips sucked the life out of their phone hosts. But a French company has deployed a sub-internet in San Francisco that would let simple sensors send data frequently and far distances without requiring much power and at a much lower cost. It opens up many more possibilities for monitoring technologies for health, business, fitness, and other activities because the sensors can essentially live longer and more independently without an external power source.
- Make humans shed tears. Japan is the capital of cute, so it’s no surprise that this little computer with the face and movements of an infant but the brain of an astronaut caused his Japanese co-pilot to nearly lose face in tears when he left the computer alone to run the ship while he returned to earth. But a much-uglier computer had the same effect when it imploded while exploring some of the deepest ocean trenches known to man.
- Move like animals. They’re not not the smartest chips in the fab, but there are now four-legged robots that have mastered one of the most difficult tricks that animals perform – balance – and can run and carry more weight than a cavalry horse while trailing their masters like loyal dogs. But walking on two legs is a much tougher challenge. There are still no robots than can move anything like humans, even with external assistance.
- Carry out assassinations without remorse (yet). We all have opinions about whether killer drones are right or wrong. I’m not going there here. But the military is experimenting with giving robots a basic moral compass. Because besides being weapons, robots are also rescuers and explorers. To carry out their duties, they should know whom to rescue first. But when it comes to knowing whom to shoot first, researchers are highly divided as to whether robots can ever be trusted not to act like mass killers or terrorists.
What’s your favorite computer organism?