A world of robots

A world of robots Not until a machine can write a sonnet or compose a concerto because of thoughts and emotions felt, and not by the chance fall of symbols, could we agree that machine equals brain -- that is, not only write it but know that it had written it. No mechanism could feel (and not merely artificially signal, an easy contrivance) pleasure at its successes, grief when its valves fuse, be warmed by flattery. be made miserable by its mistakes, be charmed by sex, be angry or depressed when it cannot get what it wants.

Sir Geoffrey Jefferson, neurosurgeon

IF THERE is one thing that is peculiar to the science of robotics, it is that it has been led by the nose by science fiction every bit of its way. It is silly pulp SF that fertilised the ground by first postulating robots and then fleshing them out: robots are bad, robots are good, robots have metal muscles infinitely stronger than any combination of sinew and tendon, robots are intellectual turnips, robots can cogitate, robots can out-cogitate humans, robots are godsends, robots are glorified dishwashers, robots exemplify the Frankenstein syndrome, robots are the next step in bionic evolution -- evolution that, for once, is not entirely anthropocentric.

Identity crisis
This is frightening stuff. The identity crisis goes on. Can"t there be a single phrase that describes robots as a single, simple entity? Unfortunately, no; unfortunate because, by definition and by purpose, robots are as varied as humans and no helpful bracketing is possible, like it is with cars or mixies or garbage compacters.

Robots have had to fight uphill this reductionist human tendency -- a collective insecurity that reduces marvels of human invention and discovery to nut and bolts. Today, the master is petrified of his pupil: for three-odd decades after Czech playwright Karel Matej Capek-Chod gave the world the word "robot" in his play R.U.R., a Wellsian dystopian fantasy, the metal beasts had a terrible press. Robots became do-gooders only in the late "70s, when Japan began replacing human slaves with metal djinns in its automobile factories, virtually taking over in the process the reins of global road transport. (Without robots taking over the repetitive but precise tasks of spot welding, spray painting, wheel-balancing, etc, it is doubtful if the Japanese automobile industry could have brought Detroit to its knees and destroyed the American dream of perpetual, luxurious nomadism).

It is then that it dawned upon the world outside high-tech automation enterprises that robotics was very much a "real" science, with real rules, real possibilities, real advantages, real dangers -- and very real ethical problems, most of the kind that humans had never confronted before (more of this later).

Humans directed the first robots, unwieldy giants, through numerical control (NC) -- plain good old punched paper, like rolls of teleprinter tape. The first NC was demonstrated at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology in 1952. Then, through the study of prosthetics for amputees and the development of technology to handle radioactive material, came telecherics: the manipulation of robots through remote control.

For most part, today"s robots remain as absurdly moronic as when they were first invented. The most complex partially self-programming robot can just about mimic the human elbow, the most complicated joint in the body. That"s as far as their dexterity goes.

But this simple adroitness is all that industrial robotics needs -- at least for the present. In fact, robotics technology services, almost exclusively, the industrial sector. A statement from the Robotic Industries Association in the US says: "An industrial robot is a reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move materials, parts, tools, or specialised devices through variable programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks." Remove "industrial" from the sentence above and you have a threadbare but workable definition of a robot"s essential functions.

This brings us to the social merits (or demerits, depending on the way you look at it) of robotics. As of now, the ethics of the issue begin, and end, on the shop floor. (If robots had been around when Marx was, the future of Marxism would undoubtedly have been different). For years, labour leaders, politicians, government officials, tycoons and professors have been thrashing out an informal limit to how far robotics ought to go. The issue of robotics and employment is a tough one, particularly in a time when the only way you can live is by slaving for it. There are no free lunches, but the problem is that, in a hemisphere where growth is threatening to choke on its own surfeit, robots do create gaping unemployment.

Indirect violence
Again by definition, nearly all industrial robots are designed to replace human labour. Typically, one industrial robot replaces 2 or 3 humans: and it doesn"t fall ill, demand bonuses, go on strike, talk back. A factory full of robots is an industrialist"s heaven and a worker"s nightmare. Also, because it is little more than an unflagging labourer, a robot forces workers into sudden knowledge-based work and mental skill, something that the years of dehumanising drudgery have scarcely prepared them for. The main law among Isaac Asimov"s Three Laws of Robotics -- holding human life sacrosanct -- is being broken without seeming to be: unemployment is indirect violence.

This problem extends itself to the rest of society. How far should you use robots to do simple tasks? Is there any physical task that is solely human-intensive and ought not to be given over to robots? Is a modicum of work essential to keep humans sane? Can robots ever enslave their creators? And that ethical minefield: can intelligent robots -- a future prospect -- ever be conscious and alive, in the same way as humans?

These questions are being buried under the welter of the benefits that robots can bring: hours upon hours of empty leisure; constructional skill beyond the human ken; unbounded creativity. It is a fact that the average workweek in the US has dropped from around 70 hours at the turn of the century to about 40 today.

But things do not stop here. Human aspirations to godhood dictate that once you have machines that are almost supernaturally powerful and fast, you have to give it the brains to look after itself and take decisions -- without human intervention. So far, the search for artificial intelligence (AI) has ended up with robots with the comprehension of a retarded 3-year-old human.

Some people would breath a sigh of relief. Kevin Warwick, a British cyberneticist, who read a paper recently at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, said, "If machines can be made as intelligent as humans, then that"s really it for the human race." Glad tidings, but this is one issue that the proponents of AI have to tackle every other step forward. Do we dare make machines as intelligent as ourselves, or is making intelligent robots an act of questionable intelligence? The brightest "autonomous" robot

s in the world -- each dead as a doornail without a battery powerpack and therefore "not alive" -- are the size of a hand. Every robotics contest has "Micromouse" on its agenda: the purpose of a micromouse is to traverse a maze in the shortest time possible, memorising the maze and then plotting a way through it. Some micromice do it at lightning speed, and it is difficult to come to terms with the fact that they do it better than humans.

The entire ethics of robotics are complicated by the certainty that robots are better at some things than humans: raw strength, binary logic, decision-making. Confronted with a blaze, there is no way that a firefighting robot will turn tail and leap through a window instead of battling the flames. (Give it the intelligence to realise that the heat might melt the plastic off its wires and short-circuit it and it might. Like a human, it wouldn"t even wait to consider the fact that a dive through a window would destroy it as effectively as fire. Intelligence is not always beneficial, as most humans would vouchsafe.).

But with an intelligent human behind it, a robot can do wonders. Robocops, robodocs, robonurses, roboservants, robopilots, robochessplayers -- this is an ascending ladder of intelligence and could, of course, culminate in that most idiotic of all creatures: robopoliticians. Levity apart, there is a robosurgeon that is adept at hip replacement. British scientists are working on camera-wielding microrobots that can be shot into the body through the navel and can then map out the innards. Doctors could direct the robots by moving their helmets up or down or sideways. Experiments are also on with long distance telecherics -- doctors can operate on patients half a world away with the help of radio remotes and a captive robot.

Most people, unfortunately, are inveterate robophobes: few would take kindly to being incised by a scalpel-wielding robot, however benign its intentions. Despite their clear advantages, robots are still Frankenstein"s children.

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