The movie « Wall-E, » a futuristic tale of a trash-compacting robot, has become a money-making machine at the box office. Here are some key components of robotics:
1. The word robot, coined by Czech playwright Karel Capek in his 1921 play « R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), » is based on the Czech word « robota, » meaning forced labor or serf. The fictional robots in Capek’s play were created chemically, not mechanically.
2. Here’s a nightmare scenario: Robots learn to build new robots, replicating without human aid and eventually achieving world domination. In theory, at least, that could happen through nanotechnology, the science of manipulating materials on an extremely small scale. Nanotechnology expert Eric Drexler once envisioned tiny machines replicating out of control, overwhelming the Earth in a wave of « gray goo. »
3. « Proprioception » is sometimes called the sixth sense. It means knowing where each part of your body is without having to look for it. This is natural for people, but very difficult for robots.
4. As household robots such as the Roomba vacuum cleaner gain popularity, clashes with pets are becoming more common. Los Angeles graphic designer Rob Sheridan has posted a YouTube video called « Puppy Vs. Robot! Epic Battle for Territorial Domination! » The video, featuring confrontations between Sheridan’s pet Lola and a toy called Roboquad, has been viewed more than 2.4 million times.
5. Cyborgs–part man and part machine–are coming. In fact, some would say they’re already here. Is a person with a heart pacemaker a cyborg? How about a person who attaches a cell phone to his ear? Scientists are working on a robot suit or exoskeleton that people could wear to increase their physical strength. The happy application: Disabled people might be able to walk. The darker side: Soldiers could fight longer and better.
6. Scientists are studying swarming behavior among robots–the collective actions of robots that have individual intelligence. Robot enthusiasts enjoy staging soccer matches between teams of machines, such as the Sony robo-dog Aibo. Daniel H. Wilson offers scarier swarming scenarios in his tongue-in-cheek but science-based book, « How to Survive a Robot Uprising. » An army of robots that communicated with each other would be effective at hunting down people because if one robot spotted a person, all of them would instantly know where the person was. Wilson also postulates how all the appliances in a « smart home » could conspire to kill the owner.
7. The « Uncanny Valley » is a theory by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori suggesting that as robots become more humanlike, people’s empathy with them increases. But Mori sees a drop-off–a valley–when the robot is not perfectly human but is alarmingly close and seems creepy, like the living dead. Filmmakers and critics have cited the Uncanny Valley as the reason some animation fails: It is neither close enough to reality nor far enough away to be comfortable to the viewer.
8. While androids–humanlike robots–dominate popular perceptions, many roboticists believe that the robots of the future will be limited-function machines that look nothing like people. One example is a snakelike robot being developed to find people trapped in the rubble of an earthquake.
9. The U.S. military may be struggling to sign up soldiers, but it’s recruiting plenty of robots. Predator drones have become a key part of the arsenal, and robots are being used to defuse roadside bombs. The U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sponsors a competition to develop an unmanned vehicle that can operate in urban environments. Congress has set a goal that one-third of the military’s « operational ground combat vehicles » be unmanned by 2015.
10. Many Americans view robots as threatening, but the Japanese have fully adopted them, consistent with their Buddhist and Shinto principles. « If you make something, your heart will go into the thing you are making, » Mori told the Tribune in 2006. « So a robot is an external self. If a robot is an external self, a robot is your child. »
Mark Jacob is a deputy metro editor at the Tribune.
Sources: Tribune staff and news services, The Wall Street Journal, University of Texas at Austin’s Robotics Research Group, the Economist, Forbes, darpa.mil and « How to Survive a Robot Uprising, » by Daniel H. Wilson.