Rebellious robots: how likely is the Terminator scenario?

Paul Raven @ 18-01-2011

Via George Dvorsky, Popular Science ponders the possibility of military robots going rogue:

We are surprisingly far along in this radical reordering of the military’s ranks, yet neither the U.S. nor any other country has fashioned anything like a robot doctrine or even a clear policy on military machines. As quickly as countries build these systems, they want to deploy them, says Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield in England: “There’s been absolutely no international discussion. It’s all going forward without anyone talking to one another.” In his recent book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, Brookings Institution fellow P.W. Singer argues that robots and remotely operated weapons are transforming wars and the wider world in much the way gunpowder, mechanization and the atomic bomb did in previous generations. But Singer sees significant differences as well. “We’re experiencing Moore’s Law,” he told me, citing the axiom that computer processing power will double every two years, “but we haven’t got past Murphy’s Law.” Robots will come to possess far greater intelligence, with more ability to reason and self- adapt, and they will also of course acquire ever greater destructive power.

[…]

It turns out that it’s easier to design intelligent robots with greater independence than it is to prove that they will always operate safely. The “Technology Horizons” report emphasizes “the relative ease with which autonomous systems can be developed, in contrast to the burden of developing V&V [verification and validation] measures,” and the document affirms that “developing methods for establishing ‘certifiable trust in autonomous systems’ is the single greatest technical barrier that must be overcome to obtain the capability advantages that are achievable by increasing use of autonomous systems.” Ground and flight tests are one method of showing that machines work correctly, but they are expensive and extremely limited in the variables they can check. Software simulations can run through a vast number of scenarios cheaply, but there is no way to know for sure how the literal-minded machine will react when on missions in the messy real world. Daniel Thompson, the technical adviser to the Control Sciences Division at the Air Force research lab, told me that as machine autonomy evolves from autopilot to adaptive flight control and all the way to advanced learning systems, certifying that machines are doing what they’re supposed to becomes much more difficult. “We still need to develop the tools that would allow us to handle this exponential growth,” he says. “What we’re talking about here are things that are very complex.”

Of course, the easiest way to avoid rogue killer robots would be to build less of them.

*tumbleweed*


Energy independence for sewage-eating robot

Paul Raven @ 22-07-2010

This story’s all over the place, at venues as diverse as Hack-A-Day and Mike Anissimov’s blog… and with good reason. Here’s the lede from PhysOrg:

UK researchers have developed an autonomous robot with an artificial gut that enables it to fuel itself by eating and excreting. The robot is the first bot powered by biomass to be demonstrated operating without assistance for several days. Being self-sustaining would enable robots of the future to function unaided for long periods.

Yup, you read that right – this machine eats a kind of organic slurry, digests the nutrients in it and then craps out the waste. Not quite so elegant (or do I mean sinister?) as the proposed rat-eating household bot we mentioned a while back, eh?

Joking aside, this is quite a big deal – energy-autonomous machines could do all sorts of amazing things, and some scary ones too. It also stirs up the same arguments about “artificial life” as the Venter announcement, albeit coming from a very different angle: if I remember my GCSE biology right, eating and excreting are two pillars of the scientific definition of biological life, and there’s a machine that does both as well as being capable of independent movement. Interesting times, people, interesting times.

Speaking of sewage and energy, we could probably be getting some of our household wattage from human waste, and there’s a pilot scheme for biomethane recapture from sewage here in the UK at the moment. But gas is tricky and dangerous to store and pipe – why not cut out the middle man and just get the energy out of the sewage directly? To be truthful, there’s still a middle man… billions of them, in fact. Apparently certain nanoparticle coatings applied to graphite anodes in sewage tanks encourage certain bacteria to proliferate, eating sewage and releasing electrons all the while. Your biowaste gets cleaned up, and you produce electricty at the same time! Sounds almost too good to be true… but they’ve got it working in a lab environment, so you never know.


The ethics of autonomous devices

Tom James @ 20-08-2009

heart_surgeonThe Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK says that the imminent rise of autonomous and semi-autonomous cars, robotic surgeons, planes, war machines, software agents, and public transport systems raises important ethical and legal questions:

Professor Stewart and report co-author Chris Elliott remain convinced that autonomous systems will prove, on average, to be better surgeons and better lorry drivers than humans are.

But when they are not, it could lead to a legal morass, they said.

“If a robot surgeon is actually better than a human one, most times you’re going to be better off with a robot surgeon,” Dr Elliott said. “But occasionally it might do something that a human being would never be so stupid as to do.”

Professor Stewart concluded: “It is fundamentally a big issue that we think the public ought to think through before we start trying to imprison a truck.”

And when and if true AI or artificial general human-level intelligences show up, will they commit crimes, and if so, who will be responsible?

[from the BBC][image from Wonderlane on flickr]


Psikharpax: the robot rat

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2009

Psikharpax the robot ratDespite some freaky-looking androids coming out of Japan, we have yet to develop robots that can reproduce complex autonomous human behaviours. Perhaps the problem is that we’re aiming too high?

That’s the theory held at the Paris-based Institute for Intelligent Systems and Robotics, at least, who’re looking to the rodent world for inspiration:

Rather than try to replicate human intelligence, in all its furious complexities and higher levels of language and reasoning, it would be better to start at the bottom and figure out simpler abilities that humans share with other animals, they say.

These include navigating, seeking food and avoiding dangers.

And, for this job, there can be no better inspiration than the rat, which has lived cheek-by-whisker with humans since Homo sapiens took his first steps.

The rat is the animal that scientists know best, and the structure of its brain is similar to that of humans,” says Steve Nguyen, a doctoral student at ISIR, who helped show off Psikharpax at a research and innovation fair in Paris last week.

The goal is to get Psikharpax to be able to “survive” in new environments. It would be able to spot and move around things in its way, detect when it is in danger from collision with a human in its vicinity and spot an opportunity for “feeding” — recharging its battery at power points placed around the lab.

“We want to make robots that are able to look after themselves and depend on humans as least as possible,” said Guillot.

Seems like a good idea… provided they don’t build in the natural rodent propensity for rapid reproduction. [via GlobalGuerillas; image borrowed from linked PhysOrg article]


I, for one, welcome our new modular robotic overlords

Paul Raven @ 28-04-2008

OK, hold everything – and take the three short minutes required to watch this video of a modular robot reassembling itself after being kicked apart:

There’s a hundred science fictional thoughts in my head right now – one of which is the twinge of guilt I felt when they kicked the thing in the first place.

What was the first thing that flashed into your head when you were watching that video? [Tip o’ the bowler to m1k3y the grinder – cheers, man!]