To obey Asimov’s First Law effectively, we must first break it

Paul Raven @ 14-10-2010

In the labs of the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, researchers are forcing machines to inflict discomfort on humans. But it’s all in a good cause, you see – in order to ensure that robots don’t harm humans by accident, you have to assess what level of harm is unacceptable.

Borut Povše […] has persuaded six male colleagues to let a powerful industrial robot repeatedly strike them on the arm, to assess human-robot pain thresholds.

It’s not because he thinks the first law of robotics is too constraining to be of any practical use, but rather to help future robots adhere to the rule. “Even robots designed to Asimov’s laws can collide with people. We are trying to make sure that when they do, the collision is not too powerful,” Povše says. “We are taking the first steps to defining the limits of the speed and acceleration of robots, and the ideal size and shape of the tools they use, so they can safely interact with humans.”

Povše and his colleagues borrowed a small production-line robot made by Japanese technology firm Epson and normally used for assembling systems such as coffee vending machines. They programmed the robot arm to move towards a point in mid-air already occupied by a volunteer’s outstretched forearm, so the robot would push the human out of the way. Each volunteer was struck 18 times at different impact energies, with the robot arm fitted with one of two tools – one blunt and round, and one sharper.


The team will continue their tests using an artificial human arm to model the physical effects of far more severe collisions. Ultimately, the idea is to cap the speed a robot should move at when it senses a nearby human, to avoid hurting them.

I can sympathise with what they’re trying to achieve here, but it strikes me (arf!) as a rather bizarre methodology. If I were more cynical than I am*, I might even suggest that this is something of a non-story dolled up to attract geek-demographic clickthrough…

… in which case, I guess it succeeded. Fie, but complicity weighs heavy upon me this day, my liege!

[ * Lucky I’m not cynical, eh? Eh? ]

In prosthetics, one size does not fit all

Paul Raven @ 28-09-2010

Here’s an interesting piece at Wired UK; a group of prosthetic limb specialists were doing some final user-satisfaction research, and discovered that the all-singing-all-dancing does-it-all-for-you system they’d made wasn’t what the users really wanted, and for very different reasons:

In addition to weakening physical control, MS often impairs attention and memory, and the complexity of the arm’s controls overwhelmed them. At that time, the arm’s sensors and AI were much more limited, and users were mostly frustrated by its complicated controls.

For these patients, according to Behal, something that might seem as simple as scratching their heads was a prolonged struggle. They needed something that took the guesswork of movement, rotation, and force out of the equation.

The quadriplegics at Orlando Health were the opposite. They were cognitively high-functioning, and some had experience with computers or video games. All had ample experience using assistive technology. Regardless of the extent of their disability or whether they were using a touchscreen, mouse, joystick, or voice controls, they preferred using the arm on manual. The more experience they had with tech, the happier they were.

Anyone with commercial tech experience, even if only in retail, will be aware that one size (or in this case, one functionality) very rarely fits all; interesting to see that revelation filtering in to medical tech research. The more canny crews will start working closely with potential usergroups earlier in the development cycle.

They’re being philosophical about it, though:

“We stay engaged when our capabilities are matched by our challenges and our opportunities,” Bricout said. If that balance tilts too far to one direction, we get anxious; if it tilts to the other, we get bored. Match them, and we’re at our happiest, most creative, and most productive.

Behal and Bricout hadn’t anticipated, for example, that users operating the arm using the manual mode would begin to show increased physical functionality.

“There’s rehabilitation potential here,” Bricout said. Thinking through multiple steps to coordinate and improve physical actions “activated latent physical and cognitive resources… It makes you rethink what rehabilitation itself might mean.”

There’s your silver lining, huh? But it’s still a bit depressing to see this as the closer:

“You have to listen to users,” Behal said. “If they don’t like using the technology, they won’t. Then it doesn’t matter how well it does its job.”

How has it taken that lesson so long to reach the technological wings of the academy? Still, better late than never, I guess…

Thorium: the new nuclear?

Paul Raven @ 31-08-2010

Via NextBigFuture, the UK’s foremost conservative middle-class broadsheet hopes President Obama can leapfrog red tape and stop the momentum of the fossil fuel industry dead in its tracks (without any explosive dissipation of said momentum, one assumes) by rushing through research on thorium-based nuclear reactors:

There is no certain bet in nuclear physics but work by Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) on the use of thorium as a cheap, clean and safe alternative to uranium in reactors may be the magic bullet we have all been hoping for, though we have barely begun to crack the potential of solar power.

Dr Rubbia says a tonne of the silvery metal – named after the Norse god of thunder, who also gave us Thor’s day or Thursday – produces as much energy as 200 tonnes of uranium, or 3,500,000 tonnes of coal. A mere fistful would light London for a week.

“There are (obviously!) no magic bullets, but this might just be a magic bullet.” Riiiight. Nonetheless, onwards:

Thorium eats its own hazardous waste. It can even scavenge the plutonium left by uranium reactors, acting as an eco-cleaner. “It’s the Big One,” said Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA rocket engineer and now chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering.

“Once you start looking more closely, it blows your mind away. You can run civilisation on thorium for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s essentially free. You don’t have to deal with uranium cartels,” he said.

Thorium is so common that miners treat it as a nuisance, a radioactive by-product if they try to dig up rare earth metals. The US and Australia are full of the stuff. So are the granite rocks of Cornwall. You do not need much: all is potentially usable as fuel, compared to just 0.7pc for uranium.

OK, sounding reassuring so far. So why haven’t we been doing anything with this before?

You might have thought that thorium reactors were the answer to every dream but when CERN went to the European Commission for development funds in 1999-2000, they were rebuffed.

Brussels turned to its technical experts, who happened to be French because the French dominate the EU’s nuclear industry. “They didn’t want competition because they had made a huge investment in the old technology,” he said.

Those dastardly French! I might have known! Where’s Churchill now we need him most blahblahblahlingeringcryptoracismandEuropanic

And now, having revved up the patriotic emotions and ecological consumer-guilt of the reader, here’s the venture capital pitch:

The Norwegian group Aker Solutions has bought Dr Rubbia’s patent for the thorium fuel-cycle, and is working on his design for a proton accelerator at its UK operation.

Victoria Ashley, the project manager, said it could lead to a network of pint-sized 600MW reactors that are lodged underground, can supply small grids, and do not require a safety citadel. It will take £2bn to build the first one, and Aker needs £100mn for the next test phase.

Yeah, I know, I’m being snarky… reading The Telegraph just has that effect on me, I’m afraid. But beneath the coded writing is a story we’ve covered before: thorium really is (at least in theory) cheaper and safer than all the other nuclear fission options, and much less sci-fi-pie-sky than fusion. But as pointed out above, someone needs to invest big money (and/or big political backing) to get it working and viable.

So, The Telegraph gamely suggests Mr Obama kick-start a modern-day Manhattan Project to that end… forgetting, perhaps, that the impetus for the Manhattan Project was somewhat more pressing and politically expedient than the abstract and contentious doom du jour of Peak Hydrocarbon, that there weren’t massive entrenched business interests lobbying and obfuscating against it, and that America as a nation actually had a few cents to rub together at the time.

Though, to their credit, they do invite the US to team up with China to get the job done. The Telegraph staff and readership will doubtless cheer on from the sidelines; if that’s not enough to get things moving, well, I don’t know what is.

Geek sickness: can social rejection make you ill?

Paul Raven @ 04-08-2010

A UCLA experiment suggests that “social stress and rejection are related to the release of certain inflammatory chemicals in the body; these chemicals have been linked to several medical conditions, including asthma, arthritis, and some kinds of cancer. Ars Technica has the low-down:

In the study, a group of researchers recruited a bunch of students at UCLA and subjected them to socially stressful situations. The students were asked write a speech and then read it to a pair of evaluators, who then acted as if the speech were abhorrently subpar. After that, they had to perform mental arithmetic for a proctor who would appear impatient with them and urge them to go faster. A subset of the participants were also made to play a game of “Cyberball” with two other people, who were asked to socially exclude them.

Throughout these socially stressful experiences, researchers took mouth swabs of the students and monitored their activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain known to process rejection-related distress. (It’s possible that the swabbing added to the stress.) The two measures showed that greater activity in this area of the brain correlated with a rise in two inflammatory chemicals that are known to play a role in the onset or progress of conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, depression, and various types of cancer.

Correlation is not causation, of course… or, as Ars more bluntly puts it, it’s unclear whether “being a nerd begets asthma, or if asthma begets a nerd”.

Tokyo billboards can guess your age, gender

Paul Raven @ 16-07-2010

The technological evolution of billboards continues apace. Three years ago we mentioned billboards that can track the attention paid to them; then there were the billboards that could beam directed soundwaves right into your ears (and your ears alone); then there was the suggestion of billboards that you could hit with a high-5 from your Body Area Network in order to receive more relevant ads. The next step? Hi-tech billboards are on trial in Tokyo, and they’re supposed to be able to assess your age demographic and gender.

This is another one of the arms races of evolutionary psychology, I suspect; the smarter advertising becomes, the more resistant to its more basic forms we’ll get. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking… after all, the only reason there’s money in spam emails is because people are stupid enough to click on the damned things.

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