Robot Jogging Coach/ Agent of Terror

So a grad student has created a hovering robot to go running with, the idea being that it will help with setting a pace and motivation.  That is likely to work for some.

The robot is suited to all types of joggers – it has a companion mode that moves in tune with your pace and a more challenging coach mode. ”The coach mode basically tries to push you to your limits,” Mr Toprak says.

Of course, I might benefit more from a re-hacking of the robot to pursue me and give me an incentive not to slow down.  The angle of the picture already gives us a sense of menace.  It isn’t hard to see the runner as looking back in terror.  It could be a fitness revolution – running for your life every morning.

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Self Driving Cars, SF and Reality Overlap Again

BBC reports that Science Fiction is overlapping with reality again, this time in the form of self-driving cars.  Nevada has just issued a license to the first self-driven vehicle, a Google car.

The practical, safety oriented part of me thinks that computers will make much better drivers than most humans.  Computers will never be distracted by a phone call, changing radio stations, tired, drunk, impatient or any of the other failings we flesh-based machines possess.  I have no doubt that there will be software glitches somewhere along the way, but the risks posed by those glitches will be minor compared to the current level of hazard that exists on most roadways.  California is also moving towards allowing self-driven cars.

“The vast majority of vehicle accidents are due to human error,” said California state Senator Alex Padilla, when he introduced the legislation.

“Through the use of computers, sensors and other systems, an autonomous vehicle is capable of analysing the driving environment more quickly and operating the vehicle more safely.”

In a near future scenario, what does this mean?

  1. The transport trucking industry is likely going to change dramatically.  Sufficiently sophisticated software will be able to replace most, and eventually all, freight drivers.  Exceptions will likely be in remote and/or extreme locations (such as ice roads in the North).
  2. Vehicle fatalities will likely go down dramatically.  Human error is the single largest cause of almost all fatal accidents.  Accidents will still happen, but not as often.  On the other hand, when things do happen they will likely be more dramatic and get more attention in the media.  Currently, accidents happen all the time and rarely make the news.  A fatal accident that includes a digital driver will be a cause for a media frenzy, which will likely create a perception of hazard that is opposite of the truth (like the fallacies about seat belts that persist in the face of evidence).
  3. Anyone who has read Robopocalypse will look on their cars with suspicion.  Anyone who has read SF in general will have their doubts.  All software is vulnerable to hacking, and that becomes a more significant issue when the software is moving massive pieces of metal and steel around in public places.
  4. Fuel efficiency will likely go up dramatically as self-driving cars become commonplace.  With reduced risk, much of the current (perceived need) for heavy components and frames will become unnecessary.  Light, fast and efficient vehicles will become the norm.  Additionally, one assumes that robots will operate at maximum efficiency, unlike we humans who irrationally squander our fuel in lunatic accelerations and decelerations (i.e. in a single block between two stop signs).
  5. There will likely be a transitional period where we all insist on having the ability to take control of the vehicle at any moment.  Before long we might not even have seats facing forward.

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Robot Surgeons

IO9 has an article about robot assisted surgery showing better outcomes that straightforward human-only surgery (specifically on the prostate).  While our natural inclination might be to prefer a human surgeon, I think that surgery (like car driving) is something that will likely be done better by a machine with an unlimited attention span.

Read the IO9 article here.  Read the original research here.

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Asteroid Mining – Sign me up!

As a science fiction and futurism buff, I can only get excited at the prospect of Asteroid Mining.  Not because of their plan to mine things like platinum, which is appealing enough.  I like the idea because if they manage to make asteroid mining profitable, space will open up quickly and dramatically.

A major barrier to space exploration has always been cost and risk.  Government agencies like NASA have been seriously constrained by the confluence of these two issues – as you reduce risk you increase cost.  A zero risk effort is monstrously expensive, and NASA has been (somewhat rightly) shy of risking humans in risky ventures.  Fair enough – if they lost a Mars mission full of astronauts, they would likely have to shut their doors and Mars exploration would be pushed back a generation or two.

But commercial ventures have different risk/cost ratios.  If a corporation like Planetary Resources loses a robot mining craft, or even loses everything, others can and will learn from their mistakes.  They can still reduce risk, but they are not required to eliminate it altogether in the way that government entities must.

This makes me very optimistic.  I don’t have an attachment to any particular entity or type of organization reaching space, and I think that viable space commercialization and (possibly) colonization will be enough of a singularity that it is impossible to predict the outcomes as they apply down here on earth.  But what I am enthusiastically in support of is humans expanding into space, as soon as possible.

We are an adaptable species, but we are also at our best when we have significant challenges.  Space exploration is a much more interesting and exciting challenge than many of the dystopian futures current SF seems obsessed with.

Via GFR and many others.

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Open Source Automated Sentry Guns

Anyone who every played Half Life can agree that these autonomous sentry guns are both cool and very scary.  It is also cool and scary to know that Project Sentry Gun has plans, software and instructions on how to make your own device available for free.  Yes, all the turrets are for paintballs and airsoft guns, but it wouldn’t take much of a tinker to convert them to real, scary guns. It wouldn’t take much of a prison budget shortfall to configure these to create ‘no mans lands’ around prisons, rather than using human guards.

The wistful voice of the turret in the demo video does not help to reduce the creepiness at all.

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Robot Prison Guards

Any science fiction fan can see all kinds of potential dystopian downsides to this sort of application. That said, things like this are inevitable with increased automation.

Being somewhat uncomfortable with incarcerating ever-growing percentages of the population, I am inclined to wish that our societies would find other ways to reduce the cost of prisons. However, these guards aren’t likely to be bribed or to smuggle any weapons into the prison, which is probably a good thing.

The robots in the video are fairly benign. Six generations down the line is where I will get concerned – nobody needs a robot gun turret guarding anything without some serious dangers arising.

via Extremetech

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Coolest Robot Videos

ExtremeTech has gathered a collection of videos that showcase the many exciting developments in robots over the last couple of years.  I think this is one of those SF tropes that will change our lives in dramatic and unexpected ways over the next ten years.

That said, outside of anticipated (and terrifying) military applications, I think the advent of smart machines in our lives is now so commonplace that we won’t be as amazed as we expected.  A robot to do the dishes?  Of course, along with driving the car, mowing the lawn and a zillion other things that are merely logical extensions of the smart computing we are coming to terms with now.

Some of the videos have appeared here on the Rocket Ship, but many are new to me and hopefully to you as well.  Enjoy.

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