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The robots are coming…

Sometimes, I admit, I could probably use a robot around the house. It could clean the bathrooms, vacuum the floor under Elly's high chair, bring beer from the fridge when the game goes into overtime, and have dinner waiting after a long day at work.

Sometimes, I admit, I could probably use a robot around the house. It could clean the bathrooms, vacuum the floor under Elly's high chair, bring beer from the fridge when the game goes into overtime, and have dinner waiting after a long day at work. A robot could maintain my bike and fix the car, remember where I put my keys, book airline tickets, and wait on the phone for hours with utility companies and government offices while I get on with my life.

Of course, they could do a lot more than that. They could help seniors and persons with disabilities get around their homes. They could work in mines and power plants, on mountaintops and at the bottom of the ocean, in radioactive tailing ponds, and other dangerous environments where humans can't go. They could perform delicate operations, under the direction of a surgeon, with a precision, speed and patience that no human could match.

And, if science fiction writers know anything, they could also take over the world and either enslave or eradicate us once they attain a certain level of higher consciousness and figure out that their human overlords are kind of jerks. This is the world of The Matrix, the Dune Universe, Terminator, Battlestar Galactica , and countless other Sci-Fi books and movies, and a world that some people fear is inevitable if we keep going down the same road to automation.

Humans vs. robots conflicts aside, there are also those who embrace the idea of sentient computers on the belief that humanity is ultimately doomed by a changing planet and solar system, and by our own physical limitations. Humans will likely never travel to another star, for example, or settle another planet millions of light years away, but robots made in the image of man, traveling the cosmos on sleep mode - possibly with jars full of cloned human embryos in the onboard freezer - just might make the trip on our behalf, even if takes a million years.

But at this point nobody has really figured out how far can go with artificial intelligence or robotics without stopping to take a collective breath. There are no international conventions or plans to discuss the possibilities in a global way. How do we intend to maintain control of the things we create when our creations will one day have the power the think for themselves?

We should probably answer these questions sooner than later in light of recent developments. Last week, researchers at Cornell University created a computer program that figured out the laws of motion by observing a swinging pendulum, accomplishing in less than a day something that took humans hundreds of years (blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/04/newtonai.html).

Less than two weeks earlier, a coalition of scientists from 15 institutions in seven countries - they call themselves FACETS for Fast Analog Computing with Emergent Transient States (http://facets.kip.uni-heidelberg.de/public/) - announced plans to co-operate on building a neural computer that will work like the human brain, with some segments that observe and sense, others that remember, and others that think and learn. A basic prototype is already working that opens the door to artificial intelligence.

But while a disembodied computer brain is not that scary - you could always cut the power - recent advances in robotics suggest it won't be that long before artificial brains can be coupled with robotic bodies. The U.S. military recently tested and approved the four-legged robot "BigDog" (www.bostondynamics.com) for combat, which can carry huge loads on uneven terrain. You can't knock it over or trip it up, and it goes faster than the soldiers it's built to serve.

Personally, I figure that Spielberg's bleak A.I. or Blade Runner is probably a more likely scenario than The Matrix or Terminator when it comes to the shared future of robots and humanity, but it still opens a lot of moral and ethical questions when you create life in a lab, even if it is artificial life on a silicon chip. Will robots become our slaves? Our companions? Our soldiers? Can you destroy an obsolete robot if it has a human mind, or is that murder? If robots take over all the menial jobs in society then what happens to the people who used to work those jobs? How does the human race keep its initiative, or its sense of purpose if robots take care of our every need?

Once upon a time these were questions for the distant future. Now, given the pace of technology, these are the questions we'll have to answer within decades.

Website of the Week - One again I have to give the nod to Lifehacker.com, which is easily one of the most helpful websites I've ever discovered, for things I never realized I needed help with. One article I recommend is in the Ubergeek section, titled Productivity Script Reminds You to Spend Time Wisely. Basically the article includes a script (PC only) that you can install on your computer that will prompt you every so often to get back to work. The sample script asks you to "consider if this is really how I need to be spending my time. Continue?" with Yes and No buttons. If you click yes then the action you just selected will take place, and if you click No it will cancel that action. Maybe it's enough to get you to give up that third game of minesweeper and get back to the really important things.




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