Saturday

Yes, The Robots Are Coming

Robots have been a staple of science fiction for some time, and many stories and movies have featured robots as good guys or bad guys (or both). But are the herky-jerky things we see now on YouTube ever actually going to amount to anything more than a curiosity? I think so; even though in large part we don't really need them (people used to do what robots do now) we seem to love to push technology for it's own sake - so we could certainly see humanoid robots, or even Androids, being used in medicine for example.
A robot is a mechanical device that can be made to perform repetitive tasks (as in assembly lines), or it may be autonomous or semi-autonomous - able to perform some functions on it's own, and perhaps even to learn as it goes. These days a robot would invariably be a computer-controlled device, and such robots may simply be machine-like (again, the assembly line robots come into mind), or they may resemble or even mimic animals, insects or people.

The DARPA research organization has a robotic "pack mule" named Big Dog that can follow simple directions (such as "follow" or "wait"). Smaller, insect-like robots (both flying and crawling varieties) have been developed too. Humanoid robots may either resemble the human form, like C3-PO in Star Wars, or they may mimic human appearance, such as Lt Cmdr Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data would be more properly referred to as an Android.
C3-PO

Today, hospitals use robotic carts to carry medications or food to patients' rooms. I also think it's likely that the field of medicine will be the place where we really start to see humanoid robots start to be used for some forms of patient interaction, such as elder care and working with children with special needs.

The movie "Robot And Frank" spins a tale set in the near future and involved a somewhat reclusive older man in the early stages of dementia. His son brings him a small robot helper (looking a lot like Honda's Asimo, but in fact a small actress in a costume), and after initial protestations from the father, a relationship develops between Frank and the robot.

The VGC-60L and Frank
The robot portrayed in the movie is a logical extension of what we have now - the main difference between it and an actual Honda Asimo robot is that it the fictitional "Model VGC-60L" operates autonomously, with Frank's welfare as it's sole mission. The robot has quite sophisticated artificial intelligence and can hold a conversation, and so it's relatively easy for the older, distrusting man to eventually warm to this mechanical helper over time.

Interaction with humans who need some kind of constant care could be an area where robots (humanoid or not) may actually make sense. With a rapidly aging population, smart robots in the home  - or nursing home - may help patients take medications, and monitor them for slips and falls. Frankly, this is work for which it is hard to find enough good human help, so it may be more practical than it sounds.

The ability to interact with these machines at some level may be a calming presence as well. In Japan, elderly patients have shown good results when exposed to robotic "animals" - the robots make pleasing noises when stroked and held, rather like an infinitely patient cat. Troubled children may also benefit from this sort of robot therapy.

Today's best Artificial Intelligence is on par with a 3 or 4 year old child, as far as IQ testing - but much less than that in some areas (such as comprehension). So we have a ways to go before we have "NS-5" type robots as seen in the "commercial" below - but one day...
 


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