March 2, 2017 AI, Robotics

At the dawn of a robotic era, time has come for humans to practise what they preach

A 12-year-old girl looks down toward the race track, then back at her parents sitting also in the public. They´ve traveled from miles away just to be part of this event and support their favorite contestant, Chimp. She cups her cheeks in her little hands as sadness takes over excitement.  Others behind them, sobbing with just as much disappointment, seem however more optimistic.

“Maybe he will recover!” a voice echoes.

A couple to her right cranes forward, both concentrated and nervous. Next to them, a man with his binoculars awaits quietly as if he were made of stone. He doesn’t move, he doesn’t speak. He just adjusts the vision with equally much patience as interest.

“Chimp is getting up!” a 50-year-old man screams from the pit of his lungs on a victorious tone.

Soon, all you can hear is a symphony of claps and cheers. Everything else is gone.  Chimp gets up on his four limbs and is back for more. He has decided he could finish this competition. Minutes later, he reaches the platform at the end of a set of five stairs, all which he manages to climb, thus completing the final stage of the run. The crowds are ecstatic and Chimp has just increased his fan base by hundreds on the scene and surely millions at home.  Why? Because now he has become the first robot to finish the DARPA course after months and years of excruciating work from his creators´ camp. He will not make it beyond Hugo’s nor Running Man´s scores, yet he will still take the podium bringing home a 500 000 dollars’ price he so much deserves for his persistency and ambition.

In the 80s a new era was on the verge of expansion: that of the robotic assistant. Ever since, this steel partner in crime has learned to perform almost everything from grabbing boxes to lifting heavy objects, drilling holes into cement and concrete, attaching pieces together and even sorting batteries or packing pies. In the 2000s, he was taking over factory floors all across the entrepreneurial world, due to its cost efficiency and a modest need for quality time with family and friends.

Yet, there was still one thing this extraordinary member of our human society couldn’t quite come to terms with: the human brain. The world outside factory walls was harsh and a good understanding of it, crucial. Engineers didn’t waste too much time and immediately got to work trying to tackle the problem.

Robots were put in the situation to adapt to things and places humans had perfected over centuries to best fit their anatomy. Robots were actually obliged to become more like humans.  So the game was on. As the first features in the thread of their evolution, robots welcomed human mobility and manual dexterity. Tendons and muscles, nerves and terminations, all had to be replicated in the anatomy of the robotic assistant to further learn how to use each and every one of them. Many engineers described this stage as a “back to the anatomy classes in high school” kind of experience, yet not as boring, but on the contrary: exciting and filled with joy.

It was a good start, however much more work needed to be done.

In the past two years, DARPA has been encouraging talented engineers through competitions and actual investments in their projects, to create, polish and complete humanoids. Why? Because of the potential robotic assistants (or humanoids) are expected to have in solving problems humans can`t (like for example handling toxic substances, rescuing victims of natural or man-made calamities, or just pushing a button or corking a handle in a radioactive environment where and when action needs to be taken fast in order to reinstall order).

Challenges do remain; one of the biggest, maybe even the only difference left between “us” and “them”, being the replication of the human brain. Understanding environments, remembering scenes and connecting actions with signals received from the outside world has not been easy for humans either. It took us tens of thousands of years to get where we are today, so we should not expect it to be easy for machines. Yet, one thing is for sure: robots have a precious ally this time around: the human himself, who is now readier than ever to go back to the roots of his own body and connect the dots.

While some predict the deployment of robots in a society that for centuries has been ruled only by one species, as a disaster, others promise humans have nothing to lose and everything to gain from such a scenario. Cashiers, bus, taxi and truck drivers or factory workers might lose their jobs, but new jobs will be created as a new order will arise at the horizon. OUR order, we are assured. THEIR order, some still fear.

Who is right and who is wrong, will be for the future to decide. As for modern humans, they might soon be faced with an exam no generation before theirs has ever taken: the true exam of a flexibility we so often preach.