PERSPECTIVE : Finally, the Rise of the Robots Has Come; It's Official - the Robots Are Coming. after 50 Years of Broken Promises and Science-Fiction Fantasy, Real Robots Are about to Arrive in a Place near You Steven Cutts Reports

The Birmingham Post (England), May 16, 2005 | Go to article overview

PERSPECTIVE : Finally, the Rise of the Robots Has Come; It's Official - the Robots Are Coming. after 50 Years of Broken Promises and Science-Fiction Fantasy, Real Robots Are about to Arrive in a Place near You Steven Cutts Reports


Byline: Steven Cutts

If you ever walk through a public building after hours you're quite likely to see a few rather bored looking people sweeping the floor. These days, they're probably using electrically powered mops or vacuum cleaners and this kind of work provides low wage, part-time employment for thousands of people across the country.

Within ten and possibly within less than five years this particular economic niche will be destroyed. Several companies are working on robotic vacuum cleaners that would sweep the floors of office and factory corridors powered by electric engines and guided by computer brains. Keeping the place clean will pass from the part-time worker to R2D2-like droids and when you walk down the corridors of a school or hospital after hours you'll see the occasional even more bored looking worker in overalls supervising several robots.

As the technology progresses, the residual human supervisor may vanish completely. The robots may be pricey, perhaps pounds 5,000 in the first instance, but remember that such workers require no pension funds and no wages. They won't be troubled by cleaning the place up at 4am and they may even get the place cleaner. As the technology progresses, littered streets may become a thing of the past.

The American army has already shipped a squadron of robot soldiers to Iraq where they are on stand by to deal with insurgents. Shades of a Terminator-style future would appear to be in order, but as yet these devices are effectively remote-control soldiers.

A human operator will be hiding around the next street controlling the robot from a computer screen. Just like any kid at his play station, the controlling soldier will press buttons to fire cannons and buttons to move forward, backwards and sideways. If the robot gets hit there won't be the emotive issue of body bags returning home draped in flags.

If the robot hits the enemy, he won't be asking for a pension fund or a regular wage and he can be stored in between wars without the need for regular barracks. Doubtless his enemies may try to disable him with an aerosol can of paint to his television eye, just as Doctor Who once knocked out Daleks by sliding a sock over their eye, but the Americans will probably think of a way out of that problem too.

What would be more alarming still would be a robot that could actively identify his enemies and choose to open fire independently. Friend and foe recognition is currently beyond the ability of such devices, but it may come. What we're talking about here is an onboard computer brain with built in Artificial Intelligence or AI for short.

If you've ever wondered why robots haven't made more of an appearance in our every-day lives then part of the explanation lies in the slow progress of Artificial Intelligence.

AI research is a science born of the late 20th century that is positively littered with false claims and false expectations. As long ago as the 1960s, scientists were claiming to achieved artificial intelligence using computers and software that wouldn't make it into a child's toy today. In fact, practically the only great triumph of AI technology is the chess-playing computer.

The best chess-playing computers can now beat the best human chess players in the world: sometimes. They can certainly beat 99.9 per cent of human players and will presumably beat the remaining 0.1 per cent pretty soon. This is something that many in AI research thought would never be possible. But before any AI supporters start celebrating their supremacy over man, it's important to keep things in perspective.

Computers play chess in a completely different way to people. Whereas a man thinks forwards through a linear path way, a computer dumbly considers every possible move one after another until it reaches a conclusion.

This ability to perform immense numbers of calculations very quickly is one of those things that marks a computer out from a man. …

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PERSPECTIVE : Finally, the Rise of the Robots Has Come; It's Official - the Robots Are Coming. after 50 Years of Broken Promises and Science-Fiction Fantasy, Real Robots Are about to Arrive in a Place near You Steven Cutts Reports
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