Monday, August 8, 2011

Ready for Robots?

I am not quite ready to describe the arrival of a robotic court reporter or document courier, but the latest issue of National Geographic has a fascinating article about several different projects trying to transition robots from their traditional roles as industrial machines to performing tasks and functions previously only undertaken by humans. The extraordinary challenges facing anyone seeking to create a robot that can exist amongst humans serve as a reminder (as if one were necessary) of just how complicated we all are.

For example, Carnegie Mellon and Intel Labs Pittsburgh are working on the Home Exploring Robotic Butler (HERB)that could help care for the elderly and disabled. Unlike a traditional robot performing a very specific task sequence in an auto assembly line, HERB has to learn the nuance and uncertainty of "human spaces," (such as the ability to get out of the way of someone coming your way in the hall) and therefore requires a great deal more programming. One such human nuance that another Carnegie Mellon robot called Snackbot has encountered is theft-- people actually have been caught on video stealing from him (it?).

Other projects seek to overcome some of our human frailties through the development of "ethical robots." Ronald Arkin of Georgia Tech is exploring whether robots unencumbered by volatile emotions (e.g. fear, anger) might make better ethical decisions than people.