Judgement Day Update: Terminators at I/O 2014

google_terminatorsWe’ve all thought about it… the day when super-intelligent computer becomes self-aware and unleashes a nuclear holocaust, followed shortly thereafter by the rise of the machines (cue theme from Terminator). But as it turns out, when the robot army does come to exterminate humanity, at two humans might be safe – Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to be precise.

Basically, they’ve uploaded a killer-robots.txt file to their servers that instructs T-800 and T-1000 Terminators to spare the company’s co-founders (or “disallow” their deaths). Such was the subject of a totally tongue-in-cheek presentation at this year’s Google I/O at the Moscone Center in San Fransisco, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Robots.txt file.

https://i2.wp.com/www.product-reviews.net/wp-content/uploads/Google-IO-2014-keynote-dated-live-stream-as-normal1.jpgThis tool, which was created in 1994, instructs search engines and other automated bots to avoid crawling certain pages or directories of a website. The industry has done a remarkable job staying true to the simple text file in the two decades since; Google, Bing, and Yahoo still obey its directives. The changes they uploaded read like this, just in case you’re planning on adding your name to the “disallow” list:


While that tool didn’t exactly take the rise of the machines into account, it’s appearance on the Google’s website as an Easter egg did add some levity to a company that is already being accused of facilitating in the creation of killer robots. Calling Google’s proposed line or robots “killer” does seem both premature and extreme, that did not stop a protester from interrupting the I/O 2014 keynote address.

Google_Terminators_WideBasically, as Google’s senior VP of technical infrastructure Urs Hölze spoke about their cloud platform, the unidentified man stood up and began screaming “You all work for a totalitarian company that builds machines that kill people!” As you can see from the video below, Hölze did his best to take the interruptions in stride and continued with the presentation. The protestor was later escorted out by security.

This wasn’t the first time that Google has been the source of controversy over the prospect of building “killer robots”. Ever since Google acquired Boston Dynamics and seven other robots companies in the space of six months (between and June and Dec of 2013), there has been some fear that the company has a killer machine in the works that it will attempt to sell to the armed forces.

campaign_killerrobotsNaturally, this is all part of a general sense of anxiety that surrounds developments being made across multiple fields. Whereas some concerns have crystallized into dedicated and intelligent calls for banning autonomous killer machines in advance – aka. the Campaign To Stop Killer Robots – others have resulted in the kinds of irrational outbreaks observed at this year’s I/O.

Needless to say, if Google does begin developing killer robots, or just starts militarizing its line of Boston Dynamics acquisitions, we can expect that just about everyone who can access (or hack their way into) the Robots.txt file to be adding their names. And it might not be too soon to update the list to include the T-X, Replicants, and any other killer robots we can think of!

And be sure to check out the video of the “killer robot” protester speaking out at 2014 I/O:

theverge.com, (2)

Judgement Day Update: Super-Strong Robotic Muscle

robot-arm-wrestling-03-20-09In their quest to build better, smarter and faster machines, researchers are looking to human biology for inspiration. As has been clear for some time, anthropomorphic robot designs cannot be expected to do the work of a person or replace human rescue workers if they are composed of gears, pullies, and hydraulics. Not only would they be too slow, but they would be prone to breakage.

Because of this, researchers have been working looking to create artificial muscles, synthetics tissues that respond to electrical stimuli, are flexible, and able to carry several times their own weight – just like the real thing. Such muscles will not only give robots the ability to move and perform tasks with the same ambulatory range as a human, they are likely to be far stronger than the flesh and blood variety.

micro_robot_muscleAnd of late, there have been two key developments on this front which may make this vision come true. The first comes from the US Department of Energy ’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where a team of researchers have demonstrated a new type of robotic muscle that is 1,000 times more powerful than that of a human’s, and has the ability to catapult an item 50 times its own weight.

The artificial muscle was constructed using vanadium dioxide, a material known for its ability to rapidly change size and shape. Combined with chromium and fashioned with a silicone substrate, the team formed a V-shaped ribbon which formed a coil when released from the substrate. The coil when heated turned into a micro-catapult with the ability to hurl objects – in this case, a proximity sensor.

micro_robot_muscle2pngVanadium dioxide boasts several useful qualities for creating miniaturized artificial muscles and motors. An insulator at low temperatures, it abruptly becomes a conductor at 67° Celsius (152.6° F), a quality which makes it an energy efficient option for electronic devices. In addition, the vanadium dioxide crystals undergo a change in their physical form when warmed, contracting along one dimension while expanding along the other two.

Junqiao Wu, the team’s project leader, had this to say about their invention in a press statement:

Using a simple design and inorganic materials, we achieve superior performance in power density and speed over the motors and actuators now used in integrated micro-systems… With its combination of power and multi-functionality, our micro-muscle shows great potential for applications that require a high level of functionality integration in a small space.

In short, the concept is a big improvement over existing gears and motors that are currently employed in electronic systems. However, since it is on the scale of nanometers, it’s not exactly Terminator-compliant. However, it does provide some very interesting possibilities for machines of the future, especially where the functionality of micro-systems are concerned.

graphene_flexibleAnother development with the potential to create robotic muscles comes from Duke University, where a team of engineers have found a possible way to turn graphene into a stretchable, retractable material. For years now, the miracle properties of graphene have made it an attractive option for batteries, circuits, capacitors, and transistors.

However, graphene’s tendency to stick together once crumpled has had a somewhat limiting effect on its applications. But by attacking the material to a stretchy polymer film, the Duke researchers were able to crumple and then unfold the material, resulting in a properties that lend it to a broader range of applications- including artificial muscles.

robot_muscle1Before adhering the graphene to the rubber film, the researchers first pre-stretched the film to multiple times its original size. The graphene was then attached and, as the rubber film relaxed, the graphene layer compressed and crumpled, forming a pattern where tiny sections were detached. It was this pattern that allowed the graphene to “unfold” when the rubber layer was stretched out again.

The researchers say that by crumpling and stretching, it is possible to tune the graphene from being opaque to transparent, and different polymer films can result in different properties. These include a “soft” material that acts like an artificial muscle. When electricity is applied, the material expands, and when the electricity is cut off, it contracts; the degree of which depends on the amount of voltage used.

robot_muscle2Xuanhe Zhao, an Assistant Professor at the Pratt School of Engineering, explained the implications of this discovery:

New artificial muscles are enabling diverse technologies ranging from robotics and drug delivery to energy harvesting and storage. In particular, they promise to greatly improve the quality of life for millions of disabled people by providing affordable devices such as lightweight prostheses and full-page Braille displays.

Currently, artificial muscles in robots are mostly of the pneumatic variety, relying on pressurized air to function. However, few robots use them because they can’t be controlled as precisely as electric motors. It’s possible then, that future robots may use this new rubberized graphene and other carbon-based alternatives as a kind of muscle tissue that would more closely replicate their biological counterparts.

artificial-muscle-1This would not only would this be a boon for robotics, but (as Zhao notes) for amputees and prosthetics as well. Already, bionic devices are restoring ability and even sensation to accident victims, veterans and people who suffer from physical disabilities. By incorporating carbon-based, piezoelectric muscles, these prosthetics could function just like the real thing, but with greater strength and carrying capacity.

And of course, there is the potential for cybernetic enhancement, at least in the long-term. As soon as such technology becomes commercially available, even affordable, people will have the option of swapping out their regular flesh and blood muscles for something a little more “sophisticated” and high-performance. So in addition to killer robots, we might want to keep an eye out for deranged cyborg people!

And be sure to check out this video from the Berkley Lab showing the vanadium dioxide muscle in action:

gizmag.com, (2)
, extremetech.com, pratt.duke.edu

Judgement Day Update: Using AI to Predict Flu Outbreaks

hal9000It’s a rare angle for those who’ve been raised on a heady diet of movies where the robot goes mad and tries to kill all humans: an artificial intelligence using its abilities to help humankind! But that’s the idea being explored by researchers like Raul Rabadan, a theoretical physicist working in biology at Columbia University. Using a new form of machine learning, they are seeking to unlock the mysteries of flu strains.

Basically, they are hoping to find out why flu strains like the H1N1, which ordinarily infect pigs and cows, are managing to make the jump to human hosts. Key to understanding this is finding the specific mutations that transform it into a human pathogen. Traditionally, answering this question would require painstaking comparisons of the DNA and protein sequences of different viruses.

AI-fightingfluBut thanks to rapidly growing databases of virus sequences and advances made in computing, scientists are now using sophisticated machine learning techniquesa branch of artificial intelligence in which computers develop algorithms based on the data they have been given to identify key properties in viruses like bird flu and swine flu and seeing how they go about transmitting from animals to humans.

This is especially important since every few decades, a pandemic flu virus emerges that not only infects humans but also passes rapidly from person to person. The H7N9 avian flu that infected more than 130 people in China is just the latest example. While it has not been as infectious as others, the fact that humans lack the antibodies to combat it led to a high lethality rate, with 44 of the infected dying. Whats more, it is expected to emerge again this fall or winter.

Influenza_virus_2008765Knowing the key properties to this and other viruses will help researchers identify the most dangerous new flu strains and could lead to more effective vaccines. Most importantly, scientists can now look at hundreds or thousands of flu strains simultaneously, which could reveal common mechanisms across different viruses or a broad diversity of transformations that enable human transmission.

Researchers are also using these approaches to investigate other viral mysteries, including what makes some viruses more harmful than others and factors influencing a virus’s ability to trigger an immune response. The latter could ultimately aid the development of flu vaccines. Machine learning techniques might even accelerate future efforts to identify the animal source of mystery viruses.

2009_world_subdivisions_flu_pandemicThis technique was first employed in 2011 by Nir Ben-Tal – a computational biologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel – and Richard Webby – a virologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Together, Ben-Tal and Webby used machine learning to compare protein sequences of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic swine flu with hundreds of other swine viruses.

Machine learning algorithms have been used to study DNA and protein sequences for more than 20 years, but only in the past few years have scientists applied them to viruses. Inspired by the growing amount of viral sequence data available for analysis, the machine learning approach is likely to expand as even more genomic information becomes available.

Map_H1N1_2009As Webby has said, “Databases will get much richer, and computational approaches will get much more powerful.” That in turn will help scientists better monitor emerging flu strains and predict their impact, ideally forecasting when a virus is likely to jump to people and how dangerous it is likely to become.

Perhaps Asimov had the right of it. Perhaps humanity will actually derive many benefits from turning our world increasingly over to machines. Either that, or Cameron will be right, and we’ll invent a supercomputer that’ll kill us all!

Source: wired.com

Judgement Day Update: The DARPA Atlas Robot

Atlas_robotJudgement Day has come early this year! At least that’s the impression I got when I took a look at this new DARPA prototype for a future robotic infantryman. With its anthropomorphic frame, servomotors and cables, sensor-clustered face, and the shining lights on its chest, this machine just screams Terminator! Yet surprisingly, it is being developed to help humans beings. Yeah, that’s what they said about Skynet, right before it nuked us!

Yes, this 6-foot, 330-pound robot, which was unveiled this past Thursday, was in fact designed as a testbed humanoid for disaster response. Designed to carry tools and tackle rough terrain, this robot – and those like it – are intended to operate in hazardous or disaster-stricken areas, assisting in rescue efforts and performing tasks that would ordinarily endanger the lives of human workers.

LS3-AlphaDog6reducedFunded by DARPA as part of their Robotics Challenge, the robot was developed by Boston Dynamics, the same people who brought you the AlphaDog – aka the Legged Squad Support System (LS3, pictured above) – and the Petman soldier robot. The former was developed as an all-terrain quadruped robot that could as an infantry-support vehicle by carrying a squad’s heavy ordinance over rough terrain.

The latter, like Atlas, was developed as testbed to see just how anthropomorphic a robot can be – i.e. whether or not it could move, run and jump with fluidity rather than awkward “robot” movements, and handle different surfaces. Some of you may recall seeing a video or two of it doing pushups and running on a treadmill back in 2011.

PetmanAlas, Atlas represents something vastly different and more complex than these other two machines. It was designed to not only walk and carry things, but can travel over rough terrain and climb using its hands and feet. Its head includes stereo cameras and a laser range finder to help it navigate its environment.

And, as Boston Dynamics claimed in a press release, the bot also possesses “sensate hands” that are capable of using human tools, and “28 hydraulically actuated degrees of freedom”. Its only weakness, at present, is the electrical power supply it is tethered to. But other than that, it is the most “human” robot – purely in terms physical capabilities – to date. Not only that, but it also looks pretty badass when seen in this full-profile pic, doesn’t it?

Atlas_4437_shrunk-1373567699341_610x903The DARPA Robotics Challenge is designed to help evolve machines that can cope with disasters and hazardous environments like nuclear power plant accidents. The seven teams currently in the challenge will get their own Atlas bot and then program it until December, when trials will be held at the Homestead Miami Speedway in Florida – where they will be presented with a series of challenges.

In the meantime, check out the video below of the Atlas robot as it demonstrates it full range of motion while busting a move! Then tell me if the robot is any less frightening to you. Can’t help but look at the full-length picture and imagine a plasma cannon in its hands, can you?

Source: news.cnet.com



The Future is Here: Smart Skin!

neuronsWhen it comes to modern research and development, biomimetics appear to be the order of the day. By imitating the function of biological organisms, researchers seek to improve the function of machinery to the point that it can be integrated into human bodies. Already, researchers have unveiled devices that can do the job of organs, or bionic limbs that use the wearer’s nerve signals or thoughts to initiate motion.

But what of machinery that can actually send signals back to the user, registering pressure and stimulation? That’s what researchers from the University of Georgia have been working on of late, and it has inspired them to create a device that can do the job of the largest human organ of them all – our skin. Back in April, they announced that they had successfully created a brand of “smart skin” that is sensitive enough to rival the real thing.

smart-skin_610x407In essence, the skin is a transparent, flexible arrays that uses 8000 touch-sensitive transistors (aka. taxels) that emit electricity when agitated. Each of these comprises a bundle of some 1,500 zinc oxide nanowires, which connect to electrodes via a thin layer of gold, enabling the arrays to pick up on changes in pressure as low as 10 kilopascals, which is what human skin can detect.

Mimicking the sense of touch electronically has long been the dream researchers, and has been accomplished by measuring changes in resistance. But the team at Georgia Tech experimented with a different approach, measuring tiny polarization changes when piezoelectric materials such as zinc oxide are placed under mechanical stress. In these transistors, then, piezoelectric charges control the flow of current through the nanowires.

nanowiresIn a recent news release, lead author Zhong Lin Wang of Georgia Tech’s School of Materials Science and Engineering said:

Any mechanical motion, such as the movement of arms or the fingers of a robot, could be translated to control signals. This could make artificial skin smarter and more like the human skin. It would allow the skin to feel activity on the surface.

This, when integrated to prosthetics or even robots, will allow the user to experience the sensation of touch when using their bionic limbs. But the range of possibilities extends beyond that. As Wang explained:

This is a fundamentally new technology that allows us to control electronic devices directly using mechanical agitation. This could be used in a broad range of areas, including robotics, MEMS, human-computer interfaces, and other areas that involve mechanical deformation.

prostheticNot the first time that bionic limbs have come equipped with electrodes to enable sensation. In fact, the robotic hand designed by Silvestro Micera of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland seeks to do the same thing. Using electrodes that connect from the fingertips, palm and index finger to the wearer’s arm nerves, the device registers pressure and tension in order to help them better interact with their environment.

Building on these two efforts, it is easy to get a glimpse of what future prosthetic devices will look like. In all likelihood, they will be skin-colored and covered with a soft “dermal” layer that is studded with thousands of sensors. This way, the wearer will be able to register sensations – everything from pressure to changes in temperature and perhaps even injury – from every corner of their hand.

As usual, the technology may have military uses, since the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is involved. For that matter, so is the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the Knowledge Innovation Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences are all funding it. So don’t be too surprised if bots wearing a convincing suit of artificial skin start popping up in your neighborhood!

terminator2Source: news.cnet.com

Drone Wars: X-47B Makes First Successful Landing


The X-47B, also known as the Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS), is the world’s first and only stealth autonomous drone. Late last year, it accomplished a first when it was placed aboard the USS Harry Truman, mainly to see if it would remain in place as the ship conducted maneuvers. This was the first in a series of trials to see if the new naval drone can take off and land from an aircraft carrier.

And earlier this month, it achieved another when it performed its first arrested landing. Basically, this involves a plane landing and grabbing hold of an arresting cable with a tailhook, simulating what happens aboard a carrier deck. This marked an important milestone in the development of the UCAS by proving that it is capable of landing at sea. Later this month, it will complete the final trial when it takes part in a catapult launch from the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush.


For some time now, the development of autonomous aerial drones has been the subject of concern, both from human rights groups and concerned citizens who worry about putting the power to kill into the hands of machines. The use of less sophisticated UAVs, such as the MQ-9 Reaper and the MQ-1 Predator, has already attracted considerable attention and criticism due to questions about their killing power and how they are being used.

However, these two weapons systems both have the distinction of being controlled by a remote operator, not by an on-board computer. By removing a human being from the process altogether, many fear that things will only get worse. Up until now, the US Navy and other branches of the armed services, both within the US and abroad, have had people making the decision to use lethal force. This has ensured a degree of oversight and culpability, but with autonomous machines, that will no longer be the case.


What’s more, if this technology is ever used against the citizens of the country that employ them, the people will have a much harder time holding those responsible to account. In response to these concerns, the Pentagon announced last Thanksgiving that it would be taking measures to ensure that, where life-and-death decisions were concerned, a human controller would always be at the helm.

What’s more, the Navy has offered its assurances to the public that the X-47B is not intended for operational use, but is part of a program geared toward the creation of other unmanned carrier-based aircraft programs. However, with some modifications, the unit would be capable of being outfitting with weapons mounts that would be capable of supporting missiles and bombs, at which point any legal barriers could easily find themselves being removed.

And as always, there are those who worry that giving machines the ability to kill without human oversight is a threat in and of itself. Forget about the government being culpable, what’s to happen when said machines decide to launch nukes at Russia so that the counter-attack will kill its enemies over here? Find John Conner, people, he’s our only hope!


Source: news.cnet.com

The Future is Here: Web-Based “Brain” for Robots

AI_robotMy gratitude once again to Nicola Higgins for beating me to the punch yet again! I hope she doesn’t mind that I’m totally posting a separate article, but something like this is just too good to reblog! In what is sure to excite Singularitarians and Futurists and scare the holy bejeezus out of technophobes and those fearing the Robopocalypse, a new web-based artificial brain went online recently, allowing robots to share information and seek help whenever they need it.

It’s called Rapyuta (or the The RoboEarth Cloud Engine), a part of the European Robo Earth project that began in 2011 with the hope of standardizing the way robots perceive the human world. Basically, it is an online database that robots can consult in order to get information about their world and help them make sense of their experiences, post-activation.

robot_internetThe name Rapyuta is taken from the Japanese film by Hayao Miyazaki known as Castle in the Sky, and refers to a place where all the robots live. The project, which involves researchers at five separate European research labs, has produced the database as well as software that robot owners can upload to their machines so that they can connect to the system at any time.

You might say the “brain” is an expression of sympathy for robots, who are no doubt likely to find the world intimidating and confusing once they come online. Now, instead of every robot building up their own idiosyncratic catalog of how to deal with the objects and situations it encounters, Rapyuta would be the place they ask for help when confronted with a novel situation, place or thing.

googlecarIn addition, the web-based service is able to do complicated computation on behalf of a robot. For example, if it needs to work out how to navigate a room, fold an item of clothing or understand human speech, it can simply do an online consultation rather than try to figure it out on its own. In addition, it is believed that robots will be cheaper thanks to this system since it will mean they won’t need to carry all their processing power on board.

Looking ahead, Mohanarajah Gajamohan, technical head of the project at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, says that the designers believe the system could be particularly useful for drones, self-driving cars or other mobile robots who have to do a lot of number crunching just to get round.

internetDr Heico Sandee, Robo Earth program manager at the Dutch University of Technology in Eindhoven, also highlighted the economic benefits of this new concept. “On-board computation reduces mobility and increases cost,” he said, adding that as wireless data speeds increase, more and more robotic thinking could be offloaded to the web.

But above all, the aim here is about integration. As robots become more and more common and we human beings are forced to live with them amongst us, there could be difficulties. Without access to such a database, those involved in the project and roboticists at large fear that machines will remain on production lines and never live easily alongside humans.

robots_earthAs for those who support and await the Technological Singularity, this could be one such means through which it is achieved. The idea of machines that are capable of network and constantly upgrade their software is a step in the direction of machines that are capable of self-assembling, evolving and upgrading themselves constantly, which will basically result in a rate of progress that we can currently predict.

But on the other side of the debate, there are those who say this smacks of a Skynet-like supercomputer that could provide machines with the means to network, grow smarter, and think of ways of overthrowing their human masters. While I don’t consider myself the technophobic sort, I can certainly see how this invention could be perceived that way.

robots_ideaCreating a means for robots to communicate and contribute to a growing sense of knowledge, effectively letting them take ownership of their own world, does seem kinda like the first step in creating a world where robots no longer need human handlers. Then again, if we’re going to be creating AI, we might want to consider treating them like sentient, dignified beings beforehand, and avoiding any “controversy” when they begin to demand them later.

Gotta admit, when it comes to technophobes and paranoiacs, this kind of stuff is certainly fertile territory! For more information on the Rapyuta Engine, simply click here. And may God help us all!

terminator_judgement_daySource: bbc.co.uk

The Future is Here: Roboy the Robotic Child!

roboy_splashThe field of robotics has been heated up in recent years. With autonomous killing machines being developed by the USAF, mind-controlled prosthesis for the disabled, juggling robots by Disney, a headless Kenshiro Robot and even 3D printable android, it seems like only a matter of time before Asimov’s Three Laws will need to be applied. Either that, or we might have a Robopocalypse on our hands.

But when you see this latest project in robotics, you might find it hard to imagine an apocalyptic scenario resulting. Forget Terminator, this seems more like something from the realm of Pinocchio or AI. That’s the feeling I get from Roboy, a concept that began back in May of 2012 when the University of Zurich’s Artificial Intelligence Lab committed to creating a fully humanoid robot by March of 2013.

For those doing the math, yes, that is roughly nine months. As if his size and proposed aesthetics weren’t enough, the creators even committed to a timeline that mirrored the time it takes to birth and actual child. And just to complete the illusion, they hope to cover the finished product in a soft, artificial skin. Talk about infanto-centric (assuming that’s even a word)!

But of course, the real breakthrough of Roboy is in the design itself, which borrows from the Kenshiro humanoid and the earlier Ecce model that both rely on artificial muscles to move. At this point, the robot is near completion and should be released next month during the Robots on Tour event in Zurich, Switzerland, providing everything arrives on schedule. At the moment, the long-term purpose of Roboy is to act as a prototype for service robots that will help elderly people remain independent for as long as possible.

I smell another movie reference there, one involving and old man and his friendly robot side-kick. Can you guess which one I am referring to here? Correct, it’s Robot and Frank! And with all the developments in robots happening right now, I’d say we need to do our homework and see all these movies, and reread Asimov’s Robot series while were at it!

And while you’re doing that, be sure to check out this video of the Roboy’s design in action:

Source: news.cnet.com, ailab.ifi.uzh.ch

More Judgement Day Announcements…

terminator_judgement_dayNovember saw some rather interesting developments in the field of robotics. First, there was the unveiling of Disney’s charming juggling robot, an automaton capable of playing catch with a human being. This robot is intended for use in Disneyland parks as a form of entertainment for guests, but many people wonder if this is an eerie precursor to a machine that is capable of throwing other things as well…

While Disney was scant with the details of how the robot works, they did explain that a camera tracks the balls being thrown, while an algorithm works out exactly where the ball is going to land and positions the robot arm accordingly. Combining video tracking and software, the robot is able to anticipate where its catching hand needs to be, much like the human brain does. Check out the video of it playing catch with a human stand-in below:

Also in the news, Momentum Machines unveiled a new automated burger robot chef last month. After being successfully tested on the line, the company announced its plans to introduce this robot to fast food chains everywhere, saving companies millions of dollars in staffing costs. According to projections, Momentum Machines says that its automated burger robot — which does everything from flipping burgers, to slicing tomatoes, to toasting the bun — could save the fast food industry $9 billion in wages.

Of as yet, no video is available of the burger robot doing a demonstration, but this helpful infographic does give a breakdown of the robots structure and basic functions (below). Granted, this might seem like a callous and insensitive move, especially to the over 2 million workers currently employed in fast food in the US alone. But with just about every other production line having been automated already, this seems to many like the next logical step. Good luck Momentum Machines; hope the angry mob outside your offices doesn’t scare you!

robot-burger-flipper-momentum-machinesGranted, this may all still seem like a far cry from Skynet and Cylons, but under the circumstances, is it any wonder that Cambridge University founded the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) to evaluate new technologies? Clearly, some people are worried robots are going to be doing more than just chucking balls and flipping our burgers.

Planning For Judgement Day…

TerminatorSome very interesting things have been taking place in the last month, all of concerning the possibility that humanity may someday face the extinction at the hands of killer AIs. The first took place on November 19th, when Human Rights Watch and Harvard University teamed up to release a report calling for the ban of “killer robots”, a preemptive move to ensure that we as a species never develop machines that could one day turn against us.

The second came roughly a week later when the Pentagon announced that measures were being taken to ensure that wherever robots do kill – as with drones, remote killer bots, and cruise missiles – the controller will always be a human being. Yes, while Americans were preparing for Thanksgiving, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter signed a series of instructions to “minimize the probability and consequences of failures that could lead to unintended engagements,” starting at the design stage.

X-47A Drone
X-47A Drone, the latest “hunter-killer”

And then most recently, and perhaps in response to Harvard’s and HRW’s declaration, the University of Cambridge announced the creation of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER). This new body, which is headed up by such luminaries as Huw Price, Martin Rees, and Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, will investigate whether recent advances in AI, biotechnology, and nanotechnology might eventually trigger some kind of extinction-level event. The Centre will also look at anthropomorphic (human-caused) climate change, as it might not be robots that eventually kill us, but a swelteringly hot climate instead.

All of these developments stem from the same thing: ongoing developments in the field of computer science, remotes, and AIs. Thanks in part to the creation of the Google Neural Net, increasingly sophisticated killing machines, and predictions that it is only a matter of time before they are capable of making decisions on their own, there is some worry that machines programs to kill will be able to do so without human oversight. By creating bodies that can make recommendations on the application of technologies, it is hopes that ethical conundrums and threats can be nipped in the bud. And by legislating that human agency be the deciding factor, it is further hoped that such will never be the case.

The question is, is all this overkill, or is it make perfect sense given the direction military technology and the development of AI is taking? Or, as a third possibility, might it not go far enough? Given the possibility of a “Judgement Day”-type scenario, might it be best to ban all AI’s and autonomous robots altogether? Hard to say. All I know is, its exciting to live in a time when such things are being seriously contemplated, and are not merely restricted to the realm of science fiction.Blade_runner