The first person to be killed by a robot was called Robbie Williams.
In the 1940s and 1950s a handful of scientists started discussing the possibilities of creating an artificial brain with true ‘intelligence’. The first generation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) researchers were convinced it was possible and would be a reality within a couple of decades. Herbert Simon wrote in 1965, ‘Machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work a man can do.’ However, AI research has suffered from boom and bust cycles in terms of funding and support. In 1973 both the US and UK governments stopped funding undirected AI research.
Although most of us think of robots as being multi-talented machines able to do almost anything, the majority of robots are not multi-functioning but have one highly specific purpose. The 'Dressman' robot made by Siemens has only one function: ironing shirts. It inflates inside the damp shirt and forces out the creases. Numerous commercial single-service bots have been produced – such as hands-free machines that can do the hovering – but the all-encompassing humanoid service robot has remained elusive.
South Korea has bucked this trend with a 2006 government target to put a networked service robot in every household by 2020. The scheme refers to these robots as URCs (ubiquitous robotic companions) and envisions their use for entertainment, education, home security and household chores. A 2005 pilot program saw 64 networked robots distributed to 64 Korean households and two post offices.
Honda’s robot ASIMO is at the forefront of advanced humanoid robotics. He is the latest product of an ongoing, 25-year-long project by Honda to create a viable humanoid service robot capable of interacting with and supporting humans in daily life. Surprisingly, the name ASIMO was not intended as a reference to Isaac Asimov but comes from Asi, the Japanese for feet, and Mo, short for ‘movement’.
ASIMO is designed to appear unthreatening, with a friendly appearance and height of 4ft 3in. This is a far cry from some of the more lifelike ‘android’ creations that appear downright creepy. Central to ASIMO’s success is his ability to walk and run in a truly human manner. Robots tend to excel at tasks that humans find difficult, like dealing with huge amounts of data. On the other hand, tasks that we don’t even need to think about (such as walking) have taken twenty years to master. ASIMO, with a top running speed of 6 kilometres an hour is the fastest humanoid robot in the world. A running or dancing robot is not itself a goal of the project, but the achievement represents an important marker in creating a robot with the necessary mobility to operate in a complex human environment.
ASIMO has been fitted with a number of intelligence technology features including the ability to recognise people, objects and gestures, calculate distances and the direction of movement of several objects and create flexible routes to a destination. To a certain extent ASIMO can also hear and speak. He can currently understand about 50 different calls and greetings as well as 30 different commands and can react to them accordingly.
The model for intelligence – the brain – must first be better understood before similar principles of processing can be applied to humanoid robots. It is anticipated that it will be at least 10-15 years before ASIMO’s intelligence matches his existing high level of mobility.
The robot is going to lose. Not by much. But when the final score is tallied, flesh and blood is going to beat that damn monster.
A global campaign to persuade nations to ban ‘killer robots’ before they reach the production stage has been launched in the UK by a group of academics, pressure groups and Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
Dr Noel Sharkey, professor of computer science at Sheffield University (known for his appearances as the expert on the 1990s TV show Robot Wars) says although no autonomous killer robots exist yet, their development is unregulated.
In the US, they’re already training more pilots for unmanned drones than for ordinary aircraft. The ideal recruit is someone who excels at computer games. The plan is to put each one in charge of a whole swarm of machines and, ultimately, allow the drones to operate autonomously. They will find a target, decide if it is the right one and destroy it, all without human involvement.
At present, according to Dr Sharkey, a robot cannot tell the difference between a child holding up a sweet and an adult pointing a gun. ‘We are struggling to get them to distinguish between a human being and a car’, he says. ‘We have already seen utter incompetence in the use of drones, operators making a lot of mistakes and not being properly supervised.’
Proponents say killer robots will save soldiers from dying on the battlefield; but opponents ask how machines will ever grasp the right to surrender, prisoner of war rights, collateral damage or accountability for errors. If an autonomous machine murders someone who is to blame?
The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that man may become robots.
Although the V-1 missiles, launched at London by the Germans from June 1944, were also nicknamed doodlebugs and buzz bombs, they were most commonly referred to at the time as 'the robots'.
When the first V-1 wreckage was examined there was puzzlement: it appeared to be a small plane, but in that case where was the pilot? Contemporary records make it clear that when it was realised that London was under attack by robots - as opposed to mere men, as had been the case during the Blitz - people found this psychologically much harder to deal with. Although rumours of the new 'secret weapon' had been running for months, the actuality - like something out of a science fiction story, as many noted - was far worse.
The V (for Vengeance) weapons (the V-1 robot bomb planes, and later the V-2 rockets) were experimental weapons, so the Germans couldn’t be sure they’d got their line and length right. They were intended to hit central London but actually landed all over the Greater London area. To keep the Germans guessing, Britain kept quiet - or as quiet as possible - about the robots. The public and the media went along with this conspiracy of silence. The government for a long time made no statements at all about the Vs, and even when their arrival was publicly acknowledged, great care was taken not to give details about damage and casualties, so that the enemy couldn't work out which parts of London they were hitting.
In 2007, robotic peregrine falcons were introduced to rooftops in Liverpool in an attempt to rid the city of pigeons.
Dave Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL: I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
Camel racing uses robots as jockeys.
The term ‘robot’ was first used by Czech writer and Nobel nominee Karel Cepek in his 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots.
The word ‘robot’ derives from ‘robota’ meaning serf labour, slave labour or drudgery.