Thursday, September 10, 2020

More on Robots

If convenient, try to pick up a copy of the September 2020 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, which should still be in stores at this time. The feature article, "Meet the Robots," goes into lengthy detail about a variety of different types of robots and their functions, strengths, and limitations. The cover shows a mechanical hand delicately holding a flower. The article on the magazine's website is behind a paywall, unfortunately.

Profusely illustrated, it includes photos of robots that range from human-like to vaguely humanoid to fully non-anthropomorphic. One resembles an ambulatory egg, another a mechanical octopus. As the text points out, form follows function. Some machines would gain nothing by being shaped like people, and for some tasks the human form would actually be more of a drawback than a benefit. Some of those devices perform narrowly defined, repetitive jobs such as factory assembly, while others more closely resemble what science-fiction fans think of as "robots"—quasi-intelligent, partly autonomous machines that can make decisions among alternatives. In many cases, they don't "steal jobs" but, rather, fill positions for which employers have trouble hiring enough live workers. Robots don't get sick or tired, don't suffer from boredom, and can spare human workers from exposure to hazards. On the other hand, the loss of some kinds of jobs to automation is a real problem, to which the article devotes balanced attention. Although an increasingly automated working environment may create new jobs in the long run, people can't be retrained for those hypothetical positions overnight.

Some robots carry their "brains" within their bodies, as organic creatures do, while others take remote direction from computers (Wi-Fi efficiency permitting—now there's an intriguing plot premise, a society dependent on robots controlled by a central hive-mind AI, which blackmailers or terrorists might threaten to disable). On the most lifelike end of the scale, an animated figure called Mindar, "a metal and silicone incarnation of Kannon," a deity in Japanese Buddhism, interacts with worshipers. Mindar contains no AI, but that feature may eventually be added. American company Abyss Creations makes life-size, realistic sex dolls able to converse with customers willing to pay extra for an AI similar to Alexa or Siri. Unfortunately for people envisioning truly autonomous robot lovers, from the neck down they're still just dolls.

We're cautioned against giving today's robots too much credit. They can't match us in some respects, such as the manipulative dexterity of human hands, bipedal walking, or plain "common sense." We need to approach them with "realistic expectations" rather than thinking they "are far more capable than they really are." Still, it seems wondrous to me that already robots can pick crops, milk cows, clean and disinfect rooms (I want one of those), excavate, load cargo, make deliveries in office buildings (even asking human colleagues to operate elevators for them), take inventory, guide patients through exercise routines, arrange flowers, and "help autistic children socialize." Considering that today's handheld phones are more intelligent than our first computer was (1982), imagine what lies ahead in the near future!

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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