Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Robots: we'd sure like to create them in our image

1. 20 Things You Didn't Know About Robots
Modern robots can respond to emotion and the smell of fine wines
by Sean Markey, Corey S. Powell/Discover Magazine

1 “Robot” comes from the Czech word robota, meaning “drudgery,” and first appeared in the 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The drama ends badly when the machines rise up and kill their creators, leaving a sole lonely survivor.

2 They say it was an accident. The first known case of robot homicide occurred in 1981, when a robotic arm crushed a Japanese Kawasaki factory worker.

3 More than a million industrial robots are now in use, nearly half of them in Japan.

4 Archytas of Tarentum, a pal of Plato’s, built a mechanical bird driven by a jet of steam or compressed air—arguably history’s first robot—in the fifth century B.C.

5 Leonardo da Vinci drew up plans for an armored humanoid machine in 1495. Engineer Mark Rosheim has created a functional miniature version for NASA to help colonize Mars.

6 Slow but steady: The real Mars robots, Spirit and Opportunity , have logged 10.5 miles trudging across the Red Planet for more than three years. The unstoppable droids were built to last 90 days.

7 The United States’ military corps of 4,000 robots includes reconnaissance Talon bots that scout for roadside bombs in Iraq and PackBots that poked around for Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Afghanistan. Apparently without much success.

8 PackBot’s manufacturer, iRobot, has also sold more than 2 million Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners, with the same environment-sensing technology.

9 Low tech vs. high tech: Taliban fighters in Afghanistan have reportedly used ladders to flip over and disable the U.S. military robots sent to scout out their caves.

10 Elektro, the world’s first humanoid robot, debuted in 1939. Built by Westinghouse, the seven-foot-tall walking machine “spoke” more than 700 words stored on 78-rpm records to simulate conversation.

11 Life is tough in Tinseltown: Elektro later appeared in the 1960 B movie Sex Kittens Go to College.

12 R2-D2 is the only character that appears unchanged (by aging, say, or a funky black outfit ) in all six Star Wars movies.

13 R2’s dark secret: It was played by actor Kenny Baker, who by the end was mostly given the boot and replaced by CGI.

14 Chris Melhuish of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory created robots that use bacteria-filled fuel cells to produce electricity from rotten apples and dead flies. The goal: robots that forage for their own food.

15 Mini Me: Australian researchers are trying to build a microrobot that would mimic the swim stroke used by E. coli bacteria. It would be injected into a patient so it could take a biopsy from the inside.

16 Cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick calls himself the world’s first cyborg, with computer chips implanted in his left arm. He can remotely operate doors, an artificial hand, and an electronic wheelchair.

17 Winebot, built by Japan’s NEC System Technologies and Mie University, can ID scads of different wines, cheeses, and hors d’oeuvres ... up to a point. It recently mistook a reporter’s hand for prosciutto.

18 MIT’s Media Lab is trying to make robots personal, developing RoCo—a computer with a monitor for a head and neck—and Leonardo, a sort of super-Furby designed to respond to emotional cues.

19 No strings attached! Robotics expert Henrik Christensen predicts humans will be having sex with robots within four years.

20 Hans Moravec, founder of Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, predicts that robots will emerge as their own species by 2040. “They could replace us in every essential task and, in principle, operate our society increasingly well without us,” he concludes, oddly cheery.

2. Robots hold key to evolution of language -- by Roger Highfield/Telegraph UK

They may look like toys, but these robots have helped to back one theory of the origins of language.

Sometime between seven million years ago, when we shared our last common ancestor with chimps, and 150,000 years ago, when anatomically modern humans emerged, true language came into being.

One idea of how it emerged from the "primordial soup" of communication in the animal kingdom, whether primitive signalling between cells, the dance of bees, territorial calls and birdsong, goes as follows.

Early humans had a few specific utterances, from howls to grunts, that became associated with specific objects. Crucially, these associations formed when information transfer was beneficial for both speaker and listener. And in this way, the evolution of cooperation was crucial for language to evolve.

But this theory has been impossible to prove, given the lack of time machines or lack of fossil evidence of ancient tongues.

Now backing for the role of cooperation has come from experiments with robots - both real and virtual - that possess evolving software. The study is described today by a group including Dario Floreano of Ecole Polytechnique of the Fédérale de Lausanne, in Switzerland, and Laurent Keller of the University of Lausanne, in the journal Current Biology.

In the new work, the researchers studied the changing behaviour of 100 "colonies" of 10 virtual robots over 500 generations, during which their software was mutated and mixed - the equivalent of breeding - so that more successful traits were passed down to future generations.

Part of the work was also done with real robots, shown here. The breeding robots could forage in a virtual environment containing "food" and "poison" sources that could only be told apart at close range.

Theoretically, the efficiency of food foraging could be increased if the robots transmitted information to one another about the location of poison but in the case of food, there is a downside to announcing finds because rival robots could then compete for the same resource.

This is a neat way to represent the pressures facing social animals in real-world conditions, where communication may be costly or harmful to the individual, but beneficial to the group.

The team could make the simulation even more realistic by having different tribes of robots, where each tribe contained robots that were more similar (in terms of software) than robots of rival tribes.

The team found that communication evolves rapidly when colonies contain genetically similar (related) individuals, or when evolutionary selection pressure works primarily on the "group" level.

The only scenario in which communication did not result in higher foraging efficiency was when colonies were composed of robots of low relatedness, when the rule was, in effect, every robot for herself.


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