Monday, February 3, 2014

Synthetic Sidekick

Wouldn't it be nice if you could have your own personal robotic assistant?  One can imagine many different purposes and designs that could be utilized, some robots could be very specialized while others could be capable of a large diversity of tasks.  Each person could also customize their robots to fit individual needs and aesthetics, with the age of 3D printers at hand, home printed robots are a very real possibility.

What kinds of things could a robotic assistant do?  There are obvious applications in security and self defense, even personal robotic body guards.  Non security applications include but are not limited to:  Automated agriculture, gathering data for scientific research of any kind, assistance of elderly/disabled people, translating languages, carrying loads, assisting with medical procedures, disaster relief, cleaning up pollution, space exploration, ect ect ect.

With those tasks in mind, on can imagine creating robots that specialize in one specific area or even focus upon one aspect of that area and accomplish that task with great efficiency.  Other robots would be more adaptable and posses great flexibility to accomplish a variety of tasks, but without such great efficiency at any specific task.

Also robots can work together in swarms to great effect, lets take for example the task of cleaning the garbage out of the ocean, we can imagine a swarm of robots being coordinated from a central location, acting as a single mind to deal with the problem.  Different robots could focus on different aspects of the task, some robots could cut up garbage, others pick it up and carry it to floating factory robots that process the raw material down and dispose of it, or print more robots.  Some robots might be small helicopters that fly overhead and help the whole system to work collectively.  Still others might travel underwater and give eyes and ears to the central computer in order to monitor every possible aspect of the situation, in this way the swarm of robots acts as a single organism, reacting to problems cooperatively.

Another scenario that robots could have a great impact upon is disaster relief, especially a nuclear disaster such as Fukashima, with a humanoid robot, this disaster could possibly have been averted by sending the robot into condition where was not able to go.  This realization led directly to the DARPA robot Olympics, which was a competition from around the world between teams of roboticists competing to run their humanoid robot through an obstacle course of tasks, including climbing a ladder, clearing a debris field, cuting through a wall, opening a door, turning an industrial valve, and so on.

Despite the military connection to DARPA, these humanoid robots are a first step in pursuit of an i-robot type humanoid assistant, it is interesting to see this type of research receiving so much funding and attention.  There are also other signs such as google's frantic buy up of robots and artificial intelligence companies, this signals the fact that these sorts of innovative concepts are catching on in the main stream and will soon be made manifest.

Another aspect of this advancement is the DIY community, services like kickstarter that fund innovative projects have allowed ordinary people to make tremendous contribution and diversify the paradigm of technology.  Kickstarter connects people with money to people with ideas, this explosion of connectivity allows innovation to function outside of normal channels and takes on a decentralized aspect.  The cheapness and availability of robotics today means that in the years to come, robots could become as ubiquitous as smartphones are now.

How will the law work in regard to personal robots?  While it remain illegal to fly helicopter robots higher than a model airplane?  How will privacy laws adapt to the ease of home brew surveillance?  What are the safety concerns of having humanoid robots on the streets?  These questions are important ones that need to discussed before these robots come into existence, not after, without taking preemptive action, we will walk into the age of the robots with our eyes closed.

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