Geek Of The Week

Robotic Dreams, Mechanical Nightmares

By gordyseeley in Geek Of The Week

Robots have always been a staple of good sci-fi writing and cinema, but did you know their origins can be traced all the way back to ancient Greek mythology? In fact, ancient myths from many different areas of the world refer to artificial people, metal guardians, and mechanical servants. Detailed sketches of a humanoid robot, capable of movement, have even been found in Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks.

When we think of robots today, however, we almost immediately conjur up mental images of characters such as R2-D2 and C-3PO, The Terminator, KITT from Knight Rider, or maybe even Twiki from Buck Rogers. Robots are now pervasive throughout pop culture and our every day lives, coming into our homes in the form of gadgets, devices, and toys. While we may still be a ways off from having our own protocol droids or self-driving cars, robotic technology is advancing at such an incredible rate it is hard to picture what exactly the future may hold.

That future we dream of may in fact already be upon us.

Amazon.com recently announced the purchase of robotics manufacturer, Kiva Systems, for $775 million. You may be asking yourself what Amazon would want with a robotics company, I know I was, until I saw this video…

 

After watching, it's easy to see how robots are going to allow Amazon to further dominate online retailing. They were already putting the hurt on countless big box stores, but now will own the company that manufactures the system showin the video above, which is already in use at the distribution centers for major retailers such as Timberline, Staple, and Toys R Us. One downside to all of this, as evidenced in the video, is the lack of humans necessary to complete the process. Do you work in a warehouse? Maybe not for very much longer.

Robots have begun taking over our most menial, and dangerous, tasks on an ever-increasing basis, but how long before they are doing so many of those jobs that there aren't enough left for the humans? Take the Amazon example from above. If the sorting, packing, and shipping process can be done 2-4 times more quickly and efficiently using a Kiva Systems-integrated warehouse, what happens to the people that used to be doing those jobs? Sure, many of them can find other work, be re-trained to perform other tasks, etc., but that's only going to last for so long and the number of available jobs/tasks will continue to diminish as time goes on…all while the global population continues to increase. The argument could be made that no human really wants to, or should have to, do the jobs now being done by robots, but I'm here to tell you there are days when I'd gladly trade my job with the guy cleaning the Honey Buckets at the county fair grounds. The whole thing reminds me of my all-time favorite poster from Demotivators. 

The jobs issue aside, one of the creepiest aspects of robotics is the drive to make robots more human-like. Back in college, I had the opportunity to play host to Robert Patrick for a day while he was in town shooting a movie. Terminator 2 had come out the year before and I was excited to get to meet him (I still have the my autographed copy of T2 on VHS). While at dinner that night, however, I remember expecting him to reach across the table at any moment, his arm quickly transforming into a liquid-metal sword, and stab me right through the eye. He was, afterall, the T-1000, a robot capable of taking on a human form. Ok, so science fiction aside, a portion of robotics research has always been geared toward achieving more human-like qualities. Honda's ASIMO robot project, 22 years in the making, has made incredible advancements in this area. This diminutive mechanical wonder if one of the most advanced robots ever created. I've been watching the developments of this project for years and continue to marvel at how fluid and sophisticated its movements and coordination get year after year. While technologically incredible, ASIMO's advances have also made it somewhat disturbing to watch as well. From running to playing soccer to climbing and descending stairs, if you haven't seen ASIMO in action, you will be both amazed and slightly unsettled…

 

 

And if ASIMO's incredible abilities didn't do it for you, this lifelike Japanese robotic project will definitely put you on edge. While watching this video, keep in mind that it is nearly two years old. I can only imagine how far the technology has come since then…

 

 

While taking on human-like qualities and features may be creepy, there is also a downright frightening aspect to robotics as well. The things robots are now able to do border on the fantastic and nowhere is that more evident than in the military segment of robotics. Pour hundreds of millions of dollars into any industry and researchers are able to accomplish incredible feats. Give them billions and, well, you get projects like 'Big Dog' from Boston Dynamics. Nothing I could write here would do justice to the amazing technology behind this machine. The only thing I ask is that, while watching the following video, you envision this thing running toward you with a machine gun mounted to its back and razor-sharp steel jaws on its head. You know it will happen…

 

 

As you can imagine, there are dozens of military applications for robots like Big Dog. It's big business and it's not going to decrease anytime soon. With combat operations being conducted in just about every environment imaginable, the use of robots continue to reduce the risks to soldiers. One such robot, also from Boston Dynamics (are you sensing a theme for this company?), is the 'Sand Flea.' Looking like a high-end remote control car, it doesn't take much imagination to dream up the military applications of this thing. It's abilities are amazing…and downright frightening…

 

 

I could go on forever on this topic, so I'll bring things to a close with one final example of the scary side of robotics: Swarm robots. The following video illustrates the incredible, and frightening, advances that have been made in this area. I'm not sure if the video itself or the laid-back nature of the narrators voice in describing what they've created scares me more. Around the 30 second mark you'll be thinking to yourself, "This is cool," by 45 seconds you're likely to be a little freaked out, and at the 1 minute mark you will have peed your pants…

 

 

If you haven't already, you should read, 'Robopocalypse.' It's a great example of what could go horribly wrong through all these amazing advancements in robotic engineering. Plus, it's just an entertaining read.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there will ever necessarily be a robot revolution (a robolution?) that will end humanity. The technology just isn't there yet, and everyone knows the world is going to end on December 21st this year…if the Zombie Apocalypse doesn't happen first.



About

Dad, Apple fanboy, rabid UO Ducks and Portland Timbers fan, PM, gamer, goalie, shortstop, (sometimes) bike commuter, lover of all-thing-Star Wars, IT guy for family & friends, mobile app fanatic, and all-around gadget and Internet junkie.

2 Responses to “Robotic Dreams, Mechanical Nightmares”

  1. Ryan Reply April 7, 2012

    Holy. Crap.

  2. Eric Reply April 14, 2012

    Ryan, that is an understatement my friend.

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