Spot on

by Olivia Kember / 31 July, 2004
It's true. There are now robots that clean your windows or toilet bowls or even bring you the TV remote.

Bet you haven't heard this one before: household robots go feral and have to be killed by humans who are happy to outsource domestic duties, but reserve the right to murder each other. Isaac Asimov's book I, Robot was written in the 1940s; Hollywood's blockbuster of the same name, the latest vehicle for Will Smith to look cool while blowing things up, is out this month. In between we have had endless variations on the theme - 2001: A Space Odyssey, Matrix, AI, etc, all promising the end of human civilisation at a date that, like the Jehovah's Witnesses' apocalypse, is fast approaching but constantly delayed.

But we must be near end times. It's surely not a coincidence that two international robotics experts have just visited New Zealand, each with wildly different versions of our technofuture. Professor Kevin Warwick of Reading University's Cybernetics Department, also known as "Cyborg Man", visited to address the international science festival in Dunedin on "The Matrix - Myth or Reality?"

He does a nice line in controversy, claiming not just that machines will take over the world, but also that since we can't beat them, we should join them. Having implanted transponders in his arm that allowed "nervous system to nervous system communication" ("she said it felt like lightning across her palm") between him and his wife, he's now on track for a "bidirectional brain implant" that will make speech and other old-fashioned forms of communication redundant.

Meanwhile, the other expert was here to tout his toy. Ex-NASA scientist Dr Mark W Tilden invented a new branch of robotics called BEAM mechanics, helped send real robots to Mars and fake ones chasing after Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. His research has culminated in "Robosapien", a 35cm plastic figure, humanoid in the way that gridiron players are humanoid, with massive shoulders and a tiny head. It can dance, burp and wolf-whistle, and has, for those who are into such things, "more secret features than Darth Vader's underpants". It's not much use around the house. "It can pick up socks," Tilden offers. "It can scare the cat."

It's a bit irrational to feel blasé about robots when the first one you've seen is weaker than a baby, but after 50 years of fiction promising either a Rosie to take over the cleaning or a malignant machine intelligence to take over the world, Robosapien is a bit underwhelming.

Apparently, that's the point. Robots, Tilden says, need to be personable, even cute. He has invented scores of useful robots - spiderlike ones that wash windows, a snakebot that brings you the TV remote, even the "Pissbot", a golfball that eats the gunge round the bottom of the toilet. He learnt to make them silent and discreet. "My bugs had one major rule - never do what you do if there's a human being around ... and I learnt to make them slow enough not to piss off the cat." They're inexpensive, solar-powered and dishwasher safe. Why aren't they sold everywhere?

Tilden says they didn't look right, and people had to get used to them. "You don't want to change the way you live - you want them to adapt to you, not the other way round. I gave my mother a robot vacuum cleaner, and after 10 years I found out that she only used it at Christmas time when I came to visit, because she wasn't going to let no stupid machine tell her how clean her carpets were. The fact that the machine worked was irrelevant. The fact that it didn't do it in her way - that was a violation."

But he hopes that Robosapien will warm consumers to the benefits of Pissbots and the like. "We have the physics, there's not much you can't do these days. But there is an awful lot we can't market." People might look askance at a grime-eating golfball, but he thinks they will go for the next generation of Robosapien - a pink and girly model who can't talk but who can pay attention to you. By 2007, she will be 1.5m tall and doing the dishes. Good to see our brave new world supports traditional gender stereotypes.

Of course we know what happens next - one day Robosapien Rosie decides that she has made her last pineapple upside-down cake and rebels. I, Robot puts the day of reckoning at 2035. Warwick says that we will strike problems with machine intelligence in 10 years. So the Matrix will be a reality? "Neo had a jack in his head - I had a transponder in my arm ... Technically, one can see the possibilities of going there, and the research I'm doing is in that direction. And why not? If the Matrix downloads nice stories into your brain, and your reality is the reality that you want - Neo's a bit of a party pooper, really."

Okay, but what if you're not keen on being a power plug for giant roaming vacuum cleaners? Warwick's solution: become a cyborg. "It's a way of moving forward, rather than having the technology act against us." If we're cyborgs, we can upgrade. Warwick lists telepathy, mega-memories, the ability to think in multiple dimensions, see infrared and x-rays, use ultrasound to get around. He did that in 2002, and successfully dodged obstacles while blindfolded.

A man who's his own guinea pig deserves some respect, but Warwick gets flak for promising far more than his experiments allow, and generally being a media junkie. Tilden scoffs at the cyborg idea. "Stuffing chips up your arm? Human beings like the way we are."

Er, no we don't. It may be a big step from collagen to computer chips, but it's surely shrinking fast. On the other hand, we like external accessories. Even those for whom the cellphone may as well be a body part like to play at changing its colour and ringtones. If not cyborgdom, then Tilden's options include clever clothes that can hold you up or steady your arm - "I built a scarf that you tap twice and it stiffens, so it stays around your neck" - but he knows consumers will be less impressed by the physics than if it's available in red.

One disturbing fact they agree on: the desire of the US for robot soldiers. Warwick: "The American military want no body bags by 2020. So - no human soldiers in 2020, which means autonomous fighting machines." Tilden says he was consulted in 1997 - "when the first Star Wars movie came out" - about the feasibility of US robot troops, but after he told the government that it would hold ultimate responsibility for any robotic failings, it backed off. The idea of robots attacking humans is repugnant, but robots fighting each other is just absurd.

Besides, they're already out there. Some 1.5 million Robosapiens are infiltrating households near you. Tilden: "They're the world's smallest private robot army - at 14 inches high, so it's not like anyone's going to be scared. I hope this is going to lead to a much more friendly future for us."

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