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.

Post to Twitter

Drones versus Humans: The End of Navies

Image from Future Atlas.

Over at Future Atlas, a very real question is raised about the viability of hugely expensive nuclear submarines in a future environment that includes autonomous underwater drones like the one above.

I would go one step further and ask about the viability of any military vehicle larger than a drone or occupied by a human.  My country seems hellbent on purchasing a bunch of the F-35 ‘5th generation’ fighters at great expense, but I can’t help but wonder how many drones could be bought for the same price. Future Atlas makes the point:

After all, with Moore’s Law in the drones’ corner, a submarine becomes a larger and larger piece of information to hide.

How many $5000 lightweight drones would it take to find and destroy a multi-billion dollar submarine?  How about an aircraft carrier?

In the air, how many autonomous drones, with maneuverability far beyond anything holding a fragile human, would it take to make a particular volume of airspace non-survivable for a fighter plane or a bomber?  What is the relative cost of each?

In WWII, the Americans actually had weaker tanks than the Germans.  Ditto the airplanes, at least most of the time.  We just had so very many more than they did.  Even then, the soldiers operating the tanks and airplanes had an interest in surviving an engagement.  Drones would have no such concern, and combat would be a simple cost-benefit analysis.  And a drone is much, much cheaper than anything carrying a human (not to mention the obvious interest of the human in question).

Militaries are known for their tendency to prepare to win the last war instead of the next one.  They are also prone to become over-committed to their existing strategies and hardware.  I suspect the dominant military of the future will have most of its humans safely hidden away while the robots and drones do most of the damage.  But that won’t stop current military efforts to continue operating on the same assumptions.

Navies as we currently think of them are essentially doomed, or at least going to change a lot as technology surpasses their ability to control the air and water around them.  I suspect air forces are similarly doomed in their current form.  That said, most current conflict is not between technology rich forces, but between a dominant military and a resistance of some kind.  Drones are already playing a large role in these conflicts, and I suspect that will expand exponentially.

Of course, Stanislaw Lem predicted this decades ago in his book One Human Minute, (The second story, The Upside Down Evolution) but that was his way.


Post to Twitter

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.

Post to Twitter

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.

Post to Twitter

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.

Post to Twitter

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

Post to Twitter

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.

Post to Twitter