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Friday, January 8, 2010

Robots are our friends

A while ago, I watched a news story about military robots. The tone was factual, but their "expert", so to speak, came off as a little bit alarmist (pro tip: remember to include more than one expert if you're trying to come off as unbiased).

I can understand that to someone unfamiliar with computers and robots might see something like a Predator and begin to feel uncomfortable. People always fear what they don't understand, so if a person believes that their car is trying to kill them or their computer is alive - surely anyone should be able to see that arming robots to the teeth is a bad thing (TM).

The bottom line is though, that despite the layers of mechanical and digital abstraction that make up the robot, there is always a human at the other end who pulls the trigger.

Today's military robots are really nothing more than glorified remote control cars with cameras attached. If only robots were as advanced as movies and the media make them out to be. They have degrees of autonomy, such as navigating obstacles or maintaining a fixed altitude flight path, but when it comes to the grizzly business of actually fighting, robots will always surrender control to an individual who is better suited to the task.

The reason for this is simple - robot's can't interpret the world in the same way that people do. Sure - they can "see" with 5 megapixel camera, and "hear" with microphones, but all this data still needs to be interpereted in order for the robot to understand what the images and waveforms mean. The science of interpreting data into meaningful information is known as perception.

Perception remains one of the hardest and least solved problems in robotics. There are videos of prototype robots like ASIMO who can see an object and remember what it is, but the robot is still only parroting what it has been told. Artificial intelligence still lacks the ability to process semantic information about it's environment.

As humans, we have tens of years of experience which we can draw upon to derive the meaning of events going on around us. When confronted with an alien situation, we can look back into our vast database of knowledge and see if any of the information we have collected is relevant to understanding what is going on. Sometimes it's hard. Even humans make mistakes. And unless the robot has access to a human-like reservioir of knowledge about how to differentiate between a friendly and enemy soldier or a soldier who is surrendering or a Sharnaff bull, the risks of friendly fire are simply too great. And the engineers who build robots understand this.

So if a robot can't correctly interpret the environment around it, it becomes no more useful than a land mine.

A very complicated, fragile and above all expensive land mine.

If an army wants to indiscriminately kill civilians, non-combat personnel and soliders from both sides, then there are much more efficient methods of achieving it.

But, in the hands of an intelligent operator, the robot becomes an effective battlefield participant who is far more expendable than your average squishy human - but just as much of a threat.

From this perspective, you can see how military robots actually save lives. There are simply less humans exposed to danger. Nobody is going to get upset if a robot gets shot to pieces (except maybe the accountants).

I think I should make it clear that I am not pro-war: just pro-robot. We've already tried the land mine thing, and it failed. We don't need another generation of weapons which cannot discriminate between a soldier and a child. But if the robots are being used responsibly to keep humans out of dangerous situations, then it might be a step forward.

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