Here are two pictures from the Consumer Electronics Show taken in 1983 and 1984…31 and 30 years ago, respectively. The picture on the left is of B.O.B., short for “Brains On Board” (clever, huh?), billed as a “personal robot assistant” from creator Androbot, one of the first companies funded by Atari creator Nolan Bushnell‘s Catalyst Technologies Venture Capital Group (one of the first venture firms to focus on high tech in the way we think of it today). B.O.B. was designed to be the smarter younger brother of the earlier Topo robot. Topo was sold as “a mobile extension of your personal computer,” and (no surprise) required an external computer to do the heavy-duty processing it needed to roll around. Topo sported some pretty impressive specs for the time: 3 8031 microprocessors, wireless communication to your home PC via infrared link, 5 slots for additional sensors, and even limited speech capability.
Unfortunately as a “personal assistant” Topo was pretty lame. He really didn’t have much in the way of any sort of attached manipulator (arm, hand, etc.) and didn’t come standard with any sensors, so he really couldn’t do more than roll around on his two angled wheels (check out Topo’s bottom in the picture above) while being remotely controlled by a person sitting at their Apple ][+ personal computer. Topo might have made for a cool party trick but he was a long way from The Jetsons Rosie.
The right half of the CES picture at the top of this post shows a woman using MindLink, a never-released controller for the wildly popular Atari 2600 video game console system. Billed as a controller that let you use your mind to control the action on the screen, in reality MindLink used sensors to read muscle movements in the player’s forehead. Unfortunately a gaming system basically controlled by one’s eyebrows never really took off because early testers complained of headaches induced by forehead muscle strain. However, according to this article from the Atari Museum site the headband controller could be strapped to a “bicep or thigh” and users could be trained to use those muscles to control simple Pong-like games. Fun, huh?
So where have we gotten in 30 years? Where are the robots we were promised? Why aren’t we “jacking in,” using our minds to control our computers rather than typing on keyboards that haven’t changed much since the first “dumb” CRT terminal hit the market back in the 1970′s?
Possibly a lot closer than many of us realize.
While household “servant”-type robots aren’t exactly everywhere, special use home robots have become pretty common. Manufacturer iRobot has sold over 8 million floor-cleaning robots since the Roomba was introduced in 2002 and millions of other “domestic robots” have been sold over the years from a variety of manufacturers for tasks such as floor cleaning, pet care, and even ironing.
But the real robotic action has been taking place outside the home. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (“UAV’s” or “drones) have taken over many of the roles traditionally relegated to human-piloted aircraft in the military and are now starting to become more common in the civilian world . Amazon has even announced that they’re going to start limited drone-based delivery soon, though we’ll have to wait and see what that looks like.
Land-based robots have also come a long way. Lead by innovative firms such as Boston Dynamics (recently acquired by Google), the new batch or autonomous ground-based robots are a far cry from ol’ B.O.B. of 30 years ago.
Boston Dynamics’ “WildCat”
Boston Dynamics’ “Petman”
Besides the creepy “uncanny valley” feeling that comes over many of us when we see these increasingly life-like robots, one of the most interesting developments has been the move in robot development away from the idea of the general purpose, human-like “mechanical men” of the past which strove to replicate humanity to today’s development of specialized robots designed to do things that people can’t do in forms that bear little resemblance to humans. Sure, ASIMO might resemble Verne Troyer in a space suit, but it’s pretty clear from its leg joints that we’re not looking at a diminutive person. And yes, Boston Dynamics’ “Petman” does creepily resemble a soldier in full CBW (Chemical and Biological Weapons) gear, but that’s because it’s been designed to test clothing designed for humans…not because Boston Dynamics was trying to replicate a “man without a heart” like the TinMan from the Wizard of Oz. Today, form arises from function: floor sweeping robots are flat discs because they work better that way: Rosie the Robot of The Jetsons would have just as hard a time vacuuming under furniture as the humans she was modeled on.
In many ways the development of robotics over the centuries from concept to mechanical automaton to the drones of today tells us a lot about the desires and aspirations of humanity. Homer called them “Golden Servants,” robots better than humans, forged by the gods to serve the gods. Golems of the early Talmud could only be created by those closest to God.[editor's note: added after the first comment] Early Chinese artisans developed complex, human-like automata designed to mimic humans by being better at humans, even when playing as an orchestra. Leonardo used his knowledge of mechanics and human anatomy to develop robot knights powered by linkages modeled on human tendons and muscles. Artisans of the 16th and 17th centuries carried on Leonardo’s fascination with humanity and the power of science and technology to build increasingly complex “model humans” (or “androids” as German alchemist Albertus Magnus dubbed them later in 1727) such as the “mechanical monk” built around 1560. Automata of the 18th century reflected the Humanist spirit by attempting to re-create artificial people who could write, draw, sing, and play music. The Industrial Age brought about its own mechanical marvels designed to do work better and faster and cheaper and more productive than the troublesome humans toiling in factories or unreliable human “calculators” churning out tables of numbers by hand. As the 20th century dawned and the first World War demonstrated what happens when mechanization is applied to destruction, robots (mostly fanciful creations in theater or film) served as reminders about what happens when humanity is removed from life. Azimov’s “Three Rules of Robotics,” first published in 1940 as the Nazis began to grind up Europe, placed on robots a code of ideals designed to eliminate the chance of robot/human conflict:” 1) a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2) a robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and 3) a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second law.”
From Metropolis, 1927
The postwar conception of robots (up until the late 1960′s) were all about optimism, triumphant science, and the ideal of never-ending, universal prosperity. After the horrors of World War II, we wanted to create human-like things that could do the things that humans shouldn’t have to do (cue Rosie the Robot again, always eager to do the dirty housework that Jane Jetson never wanted to do). Science –which had created the atomic bomb, conquered the sea and the skies, and had begun to conquer even Heaven (space) itself– seemed inexorable and omnipotent. When computer scientist Alan Turing defined what was later to be called “artificial intelligence” through the Turing Test (a test that can only be conquered by a computer becoming indistinguishable from a human), the idea that science could create a sentient being wasn’t all that far off. When George Devol and Joseph F. Engleberger met over martinis and decided to form the first robot company (Unimation, which created the first industrial robot, Unimate), they were motivated by a desire to free humans from the drudgery of “putting and taking,” tasks that made up 50% of the work in factories. Their thoughts were of liberating humans, not impoverishing them by eliminating their usefulness. The Industrial Age had finally fulfilled its promise.
Much of the tumult of the late 1960′s arose out of what might have been an instinctual realization that machinery and humanity might not be able to co-exist peacefully.When 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL decides that it doesn’t need the humans that accompanied it on a trip to Jupiter in order to probe an ancient mystery, the anxiety over HAL echoed the growing anxiety of humans for the machines that seemed to be replacing them and running their lives. Only by shutting down the artificial intelligence is Dr. Bowman (and humanity) able to move forwards to the next stage of human evolution.
HAL decides to do something else
The period from the 70′s though the early 90′s is a time of ambivalence towards robotics. Great technological strides are made by scientists working to make robots more intelligent and responsive to their surroundings. A robot lander conquered Mars when the ironically-named robot Viking Lander soft-landed on Mars during the height of the US Bicentennial celebration, providing another late reminder to the world of the US technological and scientific superiority. Eleven years later, automated (robotic) stock trading would nearly crash the entire US economy. It was a robotic danger narrowly avoided, unlike the apocalypse brought on by rogue robots controlled by “SkyNet” in 1984′s The Terminator.
But while people may have been growing increasingly wary of technology in the 1980′s (we now tend to forget that the video game industry was nearly destroyed in 1983 when the nascent industry overextended itself), the dot.com boom of the mid-to-late 1990′s did much to alleviate their anxiety, at least for a while. At the time “technology” seemed transcendent as technology entrepreneurs were rewarded for their efforts by unimaginable wealth. While technology once was scary, now, in the age of the Internet, we’d mastered it and bent it to our will. Robots might still fight, but now they fought for us in Robot Wars. Engineers and scientists were creating robots that swam, explored alien worlds, digested food, and even drove us into buying frenzies in order to be entertained by robotic antics. When Honda first introduced the jaw-draoppingly humanoid ASIMO in 2000, it seemed to many that there was nothing that technology couldn’t achieve.
In retrospect, it seems that the 8,000 mile flight of the Global Hawk — one of the first modern drones — in April of 2001 was a harbinger of a new age in robotics. Prior to Global Hawk we’d had robots who served and amused humanity in a way more-or-less compliant with Azimov’s Three Rules of Robotics. When DARPA created the Gtlobal Hawk (which, to be accurate, first took to the skies in 1998), humanity was, for the first time, creating a robot designed to facilitate the killing of human beings through surveillance. In an age suddenly plunged into cynicism and fear by the events of September 11th, 2001, Global Hawk arrived just in time to keep an eye on the increasingly dangerous world we’d found ourselves in. For the technologically based societies such as the US, the human cost of war had now become more distant. For the less technologically advanced, war was about to become much closer, sudden, surprising, and increasingly hard to resist.
Drone strike footage
Today, more than halfway through the first quarter of the 21st century, robots have become increasingly disconnected from humanity. We no longer strive to create human analogues that are more than human or optimistically look towards robots as something that can liberate humanity from drudgery in order to ascend to a higher state. Instead, robots have become de-anthropomorphized others under our control, designed to do the dirty jobs we don’t want to do. From spending hours lingering over a war zone in order to make a kill, lugging war material over rugged terrain, to sweeping our floors and taking the wheel in order to “save” us from the drudgery of commuting, watching our children, even to cruising through our arteries as “nanobots” in order to clear them of deadly plaques built up over a lifetime of indulgence, robots now serve as a way of separating humans from the consequences of their actions. Is it no wonder that in an age where experience is increasingly mediated through screens carrying ephemeral electronic traces that we have created devices to mediate reality for us?
Double Robotics iPad-based telepresence robot
Next: Jacking into the mind-machine interface