Angels with Digital Wings

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
13 November, 2018
Editorial: 254
Fecha de publicación original: 13 febrero, 2001

The servant is forced while the server is pleased

As though there wasn’t enough going on already, the Internet has gone ahead and given birth again. Literally. The resulting cocktail from an exponential growth in the power of computation, the Net’s growing capacity for transmission, and greater accuracy in artificial intelligence and micro-electromechanical systems are all about to spawn a new generation of creatures: domestic (and/or personal) robots. They will come in all colours, shapes and sizes and will be able to perform a wide range of functions. At first, they probably won’t leave us gaping in amazement: they’ll just sweep, mow the grass, dust and polish, clean the swimming pool or chat to their “owners” a bit. But in no time at all, things are bound to get more complicated so that, sooner rather than later, it won’t really be clear who the new creatures are, the robots or ourselves.

Over the last five years the field of domestic robots has advanced in spectacular leaps and bounds. It is not so much the gadgets coming out of the laboratories, but the economic and technological changes the sector has undergone. In just ten years, the price of robots has halved while their processing capacity has increased 10-fold. Something similar has happened to artificial intelligence systems as regards their capacity to surf complex environments and the miniaturisation of their sensors, gyroscopes and accelerometers. When all this is accompanied by the cushioning help provided by telematic networks and contributions from other research areas, such as linguistics and emotional intelligence, the final product turns out to be something like AIBO the dog. 100,000 of this rather clumsy pet have already been sold but, as its makers continually point out, AIBO “is just first generation”.

The second and subsequent generations will not be so pedestrian. They will be very close to the kind of robots we identify with science fiction, including humanoids. Luc Steels, director of the Intelligence Laboratory at the Free University of Brussels, is conducting some of the most interesting research being done in this field. Its first phase, the Talking Heads project, has focussed on the process of language creation. Working with a series of intelligent agents equipped with video cameras, 10,000 people on the Net played at developing a language in collaboration with these robots, who were not programmed to speak but to agree upon a language which would allow them to communicate with the other robots in the experiment. At one point there were 3,000 of these agents travelling around the Net between London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam or Tokyo, negotiating a common language which would enable them to have some kind of conversation.

In this way local languages and dialects were created, the robots taught each other what they had learned and collectivised their linguistic knowledge. The whole process was guided by the power of statistics, the words that were most frequently used had the greatest possibility of becoming common currency, just as in real life. The most interesting thing without doubt, however, and the one that will play a key role in this new generation of robots, is that what was travelling the Net was not a robot but just its brain. Consequently, when this “brain”, (the sum total of information and knowledge it had thus far accumulated), reached its destiny, whether Paris or Tokyo, it occupied the “body” of the robot on the other end and began to operate there. It was, and is, in fact, a type of tele-transportation as efficient as any used in the popular TV series Star Trek.

This characteristic has become one of the strategic features being applied to domestic robots. As they did in the 80s, robotics companies, of all shapes and sizes, are springing up like mushrooms all over the place and they are also now preparing different types of robots with tele-transporter properties. This means that all the robot’s own knowledge can travel accompanied by the proprietor or simply go to explore other brains, other bodies, or transport what they know to people with robots in other parts of the world. Although for the moment these applications are being designed mainly for the world of entertainment and leisure, research into their use in other sectors such as education and health is not that far off.

Surgeons, for instance, might have a whole range of small robots at their disposal to help with operations which could, in time, learn to move in the complex environment of the operating theatre and within the human body. There might be similar robots in other parts of the world which have not had the opportunity to acquire similar skills. So they could have more expert “brains” sent to them through the Net, to occupy their bodiesn and then to operate. Or they might come with instructions for assembling different robots to fulfil different functions, something which is already being tested out in laboratories in Japan. The only thing needed is a receptor robot with a suitable body and a whole lot of spare parts to play with. Luc Steels assures us that, almost without realising it, we are getting closer and closer to engendering a Robot Hominidus Inteligente. And, that these “angels with digital wings” flying around the Net are like the predecessors of a new race which will soon have life breathed into them.

According to United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) the global market for domestic robots will be around 300,000 units by the year 2003, a remarkable increase compared to the 3,000 sold in 1999. The report says nothing about the degree of intelligence of these robots, but highlights a wide range of functions they can perform from routine activities such as cleaning swimming pools, mowing lawns, vacuuming or doing repair jobs around the house, to looking after handicapped people or being security guards. Demographic changes in societies, both in the developed and underdeveloped countries of the world, with the subsequent polarisation of age groups at both ends of the scale, mean that these “assistive” robots are at the receiving end of a lot of the funding going in to domestic robotics, an area where Japan and the United States hold a considerable lead.

This imminent assault of domestic robots can count on the advantages of an advance party. In the last few years we have been surrounding ourselves with the fundamental milestones to create a custom-made suitable environment for these creatures. Laptop or domestic computers, the spread of mobile phones, ubiquitous communication networks, advances in domotics, growing interconnection between domestic appliances….. all these and more are paving the way straight to the doors of our houses where one day, sooner than we think, a robot will ring the doorbell and come in to stay.

Translation: Bridget King