Monday, July 27, 2015

Sci-Fi Meets Reality In Silicon Valley

Tech Innovation

DARPA Robotics Finals: The finals challenge involved 23 teams and was held at the Fairplex in Pomona, California. The competition’s purpose is evaluating the ability of robots, the site says, “capable of assisting humans in responding to natural and man-made disasters. “Taking first place and the $2 million in prize money that goes with it is Team Kaist of Daejeon, Republic of Korea, and its robot DRC-Hubo. Coming in second and taking home $1 million is Team IHMC Robotics of Pensacola, Fla., and its robot Running Man. The third place finisher, earning the $500,000 prize, is Tartan Rescue of Pittsburgh, and its robot CHIMP.” The winning time, as the article notes, was 44 minutes and 28 seconds.
Photo Credit & Source: IEEE Spectrum

An article/conversation, by John Markoff, in Edge looks at the Next Wave in technology, or, to put it more simply, what’s both possible and probable. At the heart of this discussion of technology are two camps: techno-optimists and techno-pessimists, the latter seeing technological trends as nightmarish, portending disaster; while the former seeing them as bringing about significant human advancement.

Markoff is a science and technology journalist for The New York Times and the author of a forthcoming book, Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots. Automatons or robots can be helpful, easily doing tasks that humans find physically difficult, highly dangerous or mentally tiring. But the idea of automatons, highly intelligent and rebelling—and thus subjugating humans—is the fare of science fiction, and represents one of humanity’s fears about technological advancement. There is also the very genuine fear of automatons displacing human workers in what is already a shifting and tightening global job market.

The subtext of this argument is the question of whether such technologies are needed in light of the social and economic problems, let alone the environmental problems, that pervade our world. Yet, the changes once predicted as probable might not be possible in the next two or three decades, hindered, so to speak, by very real engineering challenges. Markoff, who grew up in the high-tech area dubbed Silicon Valley, has this to say about the place he calls home in “The Next Wave” (July 23, 2015):
There was a wonderful moment when I went down to cover the DARPA robotics challenge in Southern California. There was a preliminary event in Florida about eighteen months ago where they had the finals. They had twenty-five teams. It was quite an event. It was a spectacle. They built these by and large Terminator-style machines, and the idea was that they would be able to work in a Fukushima-like environment. Only three of the machines, after these teams worked on them for eighteen months, were able to even complete the tasks. The winning team completed the tasks in about forty-five minutes. They had an hour to do eight tasks that you and I could do in about five minutes. They had to drive the vehicle, they had to go through a door, they had to turn a crank, they had to throw a switch, they had to walk over a rubble pile, and then they had to climb stairs.
I'd have been able to do it a lot quicker than five minutes. It took the robot about forty-five minutes. Most of the robots failed at the second task, which was opening the door. Rod Brooks, who's this pioneering roboticist, came down to watch and comment on it afterwards because he'd seen all these robots struggling to get the door open and said, "If you're worried about the Terminator, just keep your door closed." We're at that stage, where our expectations have outrun the reality of the technology.
What more can be said? That the robotics technology has not advanced enough to do what a young child can do, let alone a highly trained and skilled professional search-and-rescuer? That science fiction films are fun to watch, but they are to a large degree fantasy? That in some cases, reality does catch up to science fiction, but only decades later, as is the case with our smartphones and other hand-held communication devices?

In a sense, science-fiction has bumped into reality, the hard and unbending reality of nature and its immutable laws. So, I would not be worried right now about Terminator-style automatons taking control of humans; we are far way from this on so many technological levels, let alone the ethical concerns (e.g. Frankenstein’s monster, a modern tale of Prometheus and the implications of a society gone wrong) that these machines raise, should they ever come into design fruition.

It is true that we should not invent any “intelligent beings” if we do not have sufficient knowledge of the consequences of such initiatives, even if the original reasons were good. Can society design a blueprint for its general betterment, one that includes intelligent machines that are limited in their ability to rebel against their human "creators” as a measure of safety?

Even so, as the robotics competition shows, we are not there yet. These ideas make for nice after-dinner discussions, where they typically follow a path where someone would say that such ideas are catastrophic for humanity, perhaps citing Prometheus unbound. That science has over-reached; that humanity is foolish for taking this unguarded path. What often follows is a doom-and-gloom scenarios accompanied by much hand-wringing and renting of clothes.

Robots, automatons, androids, AI, and various combinations and permutations of all these words and concepts, are embedded in our imagination, in our mind’s-eye, if you will, and will likely remain there for a long time. That these machines, these future mechanisms of engineering marvel, will be endowed with a human-type consciousness—it remaining one of the “hard questions” of our times—is also hard to fathom today. How can it be so, when we do not fully understand human consciousness. The ideas surrounding machine consciousness, even if it were “highly developed,” sounds more like science fiction that probable reality.

That being the case, I am going to save you the time of reading this long article, by quoting the final thoughtful and insightful ending, which encapsulates two schools of thought: “The Kurzweil crowd argues this is happening faster and faster, and things are just running amok. In fact, things are slowing down. In 2045, it’s going to look more like it looks today than you think.” Time will prove which group was indeed right in its prediction of the next thirty years, but I suspect it will not be Kurzweil and company.

For more, go to [Edge]

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