Thursday, August 11, 2011
Speaking of cyborgs, the August NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC contains an article on robots, with pictures:
The article explores robots designed for flexible behavior in uncontrolled environments, as opposed to the kind of factory robot that performs one job in a circumscribed, changeless setting. People are trying to teach machines to do things that are easy for us but hard for them, such as walk across a room or pick up a glass (or, as Steven Pinker discusses in THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT, carry on a natural conversation). A perfected robot of this kind would be able to serve as an aide to an infirm person, for example. In Japan a "cuddly baby seal" machine is already being used to entertain elderly nursing home residents.
Should humanoid robots try to pass for human? Do we want true androids, or would a housekeeping robot (for example) be more acceptable if purely functional instead of resembling an advanced version of the maid in THE JETSONS? The article introduces Yume (also built in Japan, not surprisingly), a feminine robot being developed for realism in both appearance and behavior. She's not there yet. The "uncanny valley," the visual space where a robot or a CGI character looks almost real but not quite and therefore inspires uneasiness in most people, hasn't been leaped over yet.
Years ago I saw a TV movie about a future in which childbearing has been banned for thirty years as a population-control measure. Couples can buy robot infants in baby stores. The artificial "babies" in this film look blatantly like talking dolls. I'm sure today's technology could do better, but how many people would want a robot child, even as a last resort? I haven't seen that movie about the robot boy rejected by his adopted parents, but from the reviews I gather the experience was traumatic. Robot pets, on the other hand—they already exist as toys, and even with today's technology a fairly convincing cybernetic dog or cat could be constructed. Compared to letting our St. Bernard out in the rain or snow and cleaning him up when he comes in, the idea of a walking-optional dog has its appeal. Still, I wouldn't want to live in a world like that of DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, with all natural animals replaced by artificial ones.
Margaret L. Carter
Posted by Margaret Carter at 9:00 AM