Terminator Anxiety? How to stop worring about Robots Taking Over the World

Do you worry about robots taking over the world? Are you concerned that the Terminator movies are prophetic and that the robot apocalypse is just around the corner.

Not going to happen.

Why? Because robots are increadably stupid and they don't have any mechanisms to become smarter. Basically, current artificial intelligence is not. Intelligent that is -- we are no closer to replicating the thought processes in even the smallest ant than we were in 1968 when Arthur C. Clarke conceived of HAL.

As part of my job I get to work with, see, play with, and go to conferences to talk about the smartest, most capable robots and AI systems in the world. I also have a lot of exeperience with supercomputers. I've built AI systems and spent years as an AI researcher. And I'm convinced that we are all wet when it comes to computers and robots behaving intelligently. We are no only not on the right road to building a self-aware computer, we have not even found the right concepts to discuss it.

You may have seen a lot of new articles like this one, that say that soon computers will be built that surpass the human brain in compute power.

That is complete and utter BS.

While it may be possible to equal a brain's worth of number crunching, we are nowhere near creating a system that equals the brain's total bandwidth and memory capacity - because we are using the wrong materials. Let's look at a computer. We store information in a computer in binary code - 1's and 0's, on or off states. It takes millions of those ones and zeros to just encode a picture, and that's just the visual information.

Our brains, on the other hand, are completely analog systems. A single channel, rather than being on or off, can convey a complete range of values with millions of possibilities. (NOTE: some neurlogical SME will jump in at this point and say, "Wait! Neurons are either on or off" -- that's the wrong way to say it. Neurons either transmit or don't (true) but when they transmit, they provide a range of data, not just a single value.) So rather than having a memory cell that has a single bit of data that is either on or off, we have a single value that has a whole range - and can be a color, a smell, a sound, a touch, a muscle memory, a texture, a weight, and so on. So the total BANDWIDTH of the neural system is enormous. So while the computer can process the data - you can't get that much data in or out as fast as a brain.

To avoid getting too long on this post, let me summarize in a simple statement.

Untill we grow our computers from analog components
and teach them rather than program them
and a robot can learn to identify and manipulate objects just like a baby
we are not doing Artificial Intelligence

and you have nothing to worry about.

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I guess I need to create a FAQ section for this blog, as this is another of the questions I get a lot of when I'm out giving talks.

How do you prepare for a career in Robotics?

Like many fields, Robotics is multi-disiplinary. We cover a lot of ground. On my current robot development team I have a manager, a business development guy (with a banking background), a mechanical engineer, two software engineers, and a systems engineer. Later we will probably need a technical writer.

The real secret, especially at my level, are presentation skills. We spend a lot of time making presentations, to customers, to other departments, and to management. I probably do four to six a week. In my experience, the designers who do well are the ones with the best communications skills -- you must be able to talk in front of a group, to organize your thoughts, and to communicate what you want to do to others. If you can't do that, leading any sort of team is very difficult. While many robot designers are "one man bands", that really limits the type of projects you can do, and certainly you would have problems at any major company.

The next secret is to take advantage of contests. I owe a great deal to taking part in the DARPA Grand Challenge, a race of full-sized self-driving cars. There are a great many robot contests, from LEGO's to the full AUVSI contests for college teams. At whatever level, these are great learning experiences. I have been involved in BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology) and think they have a good, well rounded program that really provides a taste of being a real robot maker. I'm sure FIRST and the other high school programs are excellent, but I've only been involved in BEST.

For high school study, of course you must take all the math and english you can lay your hands on. As Sinbad says, "MATH IS POWER" and that is certainly the truth. Out here in the "real world" we generally look up all the formulas in the book and do all the tough math in computers. You will not generally encounter tough math problems unless you get into UAV design and start doing CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics). I struggled all through math class but retained enough to be functional. We really use a lot of trigonometry, so learn those sines and cosines. If you also struggle in math, don't let this disuade you.

Two other courses that I have never regreted taking in high school were typing and drafting. I don't know if they still call it drafting -- its probably CAD or something like that, but I learned with a pencil, a triangle, and a T-Square -- yes, back in the Cave Man Days. These have to be very high up on my list - typing is critical for stuff like making this blog, and drafting, or mechanical drawing, is a tremendous skill in translating your thoughts onto paper and is the only way to talk to machinsts and fabricators.

The other skills in robots include lots of computer programming. I have a strong background in computer simulation, which I think is a good background for any engineer. Of course, simulations are just a type of computer game (we used to say that the only difference between a computer game and a simulation is who pays the bill). As a design tool, we use simulation all the time, and it is very valuable. I also rely alot on computer graphics, so if you find a good computer graphics or especially computer animation course, take it.

From there some sort of introduction to electronics would round out the education. We use a lot of microcontrollers, which are a different sort of animal from other types of computers. There are some very good self-teaching courses for these, and I'd suggest getting either the Parallax BOE kit or the OOBUG to learn how to deal with PICS (Programmable Integrated Circuits).

Well, I know that was a lot, but let me encourage those of you who are thinking about a career in robotics -- this is the way of the future and in the next few years this career field is going to explode in popularity.

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Life Sized Gundam invades Tokyo

Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the "reality mecha" anime video, toy, and video game franchise, Bandai built a full size, 60 foot tall Gundam Giant Robot in Tokyo.

Unfortunately it does not move, walk, fight, or launch itself into space.

But it is really cool.

For those of you who have not heard of it, Gundam is the long running series of anime (Japanese Animation) series about "realistic giant robots" that have spawned thousands of model kits, of which my son is an avid collector. There have been several different series, including my favorite all time series title, "War in the Pocket".

What a delight to see a full scale model take shape.

I've been sitting on an article about giant humanoid robots for some time now -- maybe its time to trot it out. I'll just say that I'm generally in favor of giant robots as a concept.

Thanks to Cinematical

UPDATE: there is a cool new way to see this robot that I have to say is very impressive from a lot of perspectives (pun intentional) see the Microsoft PhotoSynth version of this project. Let me know what you think!
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Code Snippet: Resize Images

I'm going to be posting little bits of code here and there that I think are useful. Recently, for this blog I wanted to resize a bunch of images from the 6MP that my camera puts out (3000x2000) into something more appropriate for web publishing, say 640x480.

My current programming language that I use is Python, which is useful for a whole bunch of stuff and is what I program all my robots in.

The script resizes all the images to be 480 wide and otherwise to keep the previous aspect ratio - we don't want to distort the images if they are in Portrait (taller than wide) format. If you want a differnt size just change the "480" to something else (say "600" to get all the pictures to be around 800x600). You can also perform a format change using this technique by changing the line
newPic = "sm-"+newPic +".jpg"

To be something else, for example PNG format

newPic = "sm-"+newPic +".png"

This Python script is dependent on PIL (Python Imaging Library) and the Win32 libraries and is written using Python 2.5 but should work in later versions:

Python for Windows
PIL Python Imaging Library
WIN32 for Python Utilities

Here goes:

import Image
import os

ddd = os.listdir(".")
pics = []
for ent in ddd:
if ent.find("jpg")>0:
print len(pics)

for pic in pics:
im = Image.open(pic)
print "OPEN: ",pic
imSize = im.size
print "Old Size:",imSize
imSize = (imSize[0]*480/imSize[1], 480)

im2 = im.resize(imSize,Image.ANTIALIAS)
print "New Size:",imSize
ns = len(pic)
ns -=4 #take off suffix
newPic = pic[:ns]
newPic = "sm-"+newPic +".jpg"
print "SAVED: ",newPic
print " "

print "FINISHED"
## end

NOTE The blogger software is removing all of the tabs and formats from this code. If you know python you know it works by indenting loops

You can find another person's code for this at this location

Resize Image Code

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My Magazine Addiction

I have a problem that seems to be totally out of control. I went out of town for just four days last week on a business trip. When I returned, I had 9 magazines sitting on my desk waiting to be read. That, of course, would be in addition to the four magazines I bought to read on the plane.


I have to admit that I like magazines. Its not just that I write for one (Robot Magazine) but that I like reading them. It does help that several of them are free. Since I'm a chief engineer and make a lot of decisions on R&D, I get people sending me free stuff on desktop engineering, embedded computers, COTS products (Commercial Off the Shelf) and so on. On the personal interest side, I read Flying and Private Pilot and get AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association). Popular Mechanics is just a guilty pleasure, although I wish their articles were longer. And I now get Aviation Week and Space Technology, a truly wonderful publication. To tell you the truth, I rarely read the articles in many magazines I get. But I do look at all of the advertising. As a robot designer, I need a lot of estoeric stuff for my projects -- lately I've been looking at hyperspectrial imaging systems and ground penetrating radar, for example. So I find a lot of my "stuff" advertised in the magazines I read. And a lot of it is only advertised in magazines. So I do get a lot of value and I hope this encourages all those people who send me free magazines to continue and to tell their advertisers that at least one person reads every single ad. Now I just need to summon the will power to not save. every. single. magazine. forever.

I think I'm going to need a bigger... trash can.

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Must Read Robot Books

No all robot books end with taking over mankind or enslaving the world. My particular favorites are the BOLO books by Keith Laumer, and since his death in 1993, then taken over by other authors like the incomparable David Weber and William H. Kieth. The book to start with is The Compleat Bolo, by the original author. Mr. Laumer has quite a sense of humor, and is the author of the Retief novels, which may be the funnest science fiction ever written.

What is a Bolo? The Bolos are self-aware, intelligent tanks, or really self-propelled land battleships -- because Bolos are big. Really Big - with dozens of tracks, multiple turrets, and incredible weapons like infinite repeaters, and the great fan favorite, the Hellbore Cannon. The ongoing theme of all of the Bolo stories is that just because you weight 200,000 tons and have the firepower of a planet does not mean that a self-aware tank cannot have honor, faith, or loyalty. Bolos are supposed to take the best aspects of knights in shining armor or "the Honor of the Regiment" and be mankind's greatest protector. The "typical" Bolo story has an ancient battle machine, long out of use, being resurrected to protect a planet or colony from invasion, usually at the sacrifice of the machine itself. Bolos represent a standard for robot that in many ways is far more realistic than Asimov's three laws, and illustrates how ethics have a place in the midst of warfare. The best of the later Bolo stories is the novel "Bolo Brigade" by William H. Keith, who really found the right voice to carry on from the late Mr. Laumer, and a truly interesting enemy in the Malach, a race of pack-hunting intelligent dinosaurs.

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