HAL on Earth

A robot may not injure a human being or through inaction allow a human being to come to injury.

A robot must obey orders given to it by a human being, except when those orders would violate the first law.

A robot must protect its own existence, except when that would violate the first or second laws.

--Isaac Asimov, 1941

Of all the things we still consider futuristic -- and that number is dwindling every year -- robots, at least in a pop-culture sense, still have the cachet of a great unknown. That robots and robotics have been among us for decades doesn't quash a certain mystique of possibility and ultimate identity robots have had ever since the word was coined 80 years ago: They are the latest last frontier of communications science, the one Tomorrowland attraction that's still going strong. Assembly plants and car factories across the nation may be crawling (or clanking) with robots, but for most of us who grew up on Iron Man, robots continue to live largest in the imagination, on the pages or Web sites of fantasy, or at the heart of our darker speculations about the fate of technology that brings us together to the same degree that it depersonalizes.

I've always thought of robots as either silly or scary: silly as fiction (comic book fodder à la Iron Man and Atom Boy); scary as fact (mechanical helpmates-turned-mutineers who seem destined to supplant the humans who make them). But I got to visit a bit of fate recently at a local company called Evolution Robotics, and I'm glad to say I'm more intrigued than afraid. In a cheery office space at the tail end of Old Town Pasadena I met ER1, a diminutive robot that's much too unlike me (yet) to be silly or scary. It looks very much like a laptop mounted on a rolling cart, though its handlers assure me it's much more than that -- ER1 is the first mass-produced, affordable, autonomous personal robot that's geared to being a real assistant rather than merely a cool toy, which most personal robots have been thus far. Contrary to my own space-invader image of 'bots, ER1 is built around what has grown entirely familiar -- a laptop computer. It's controlled with a dashboard and pull-down menus that match commands with conditions; one can simply instruct the robot to do all sorts of tasks, like fetching a beer from the refrigerator (for me, it brought a Coke) or getting the mail from a receptionist and ferrying it to a nearby boardroom. Robots never seemed so accessible, which is exactly the point; Evolution Robotics is putting a $600 product in stores in the hopes that the same tinkerers who fueled the software boom and the entire PC economy will rocket-launch the fledgling robot business.

"This is about getting robotics out of the lab and into the homes," explains Jennifer McNally, Evolution Robotics' senior marketing director. "It's about letting people play with the possibilities. People have this fantastic thing in their heads about robots -- HAL from 2001, Rosie from The Jetsons -- but the field of robotics and the consumer market are actually starting to merge."

What's exciting about ER1 is not simply its actions -- though it is a bit thrillingly creepy to watch a machine move on its own without somebody standing by with a remote -- but its ability to interpret its environment. An object-recognition system allows the ER1 to see, hear and distinguish human faces and voices -- a giant leap for robotkind. But there is also a skeleton of a robot, stripped down both for the hobbyists who want to dream up their own extras and for lay people like me. Flesh can't be far behind; Evolution Robotics has plans to add a plastic, skin-like membrane and claw hands. In something of a cultural role reversal, the Japanese have been leading the way in robot aesthetics -- Honda's sleek ASIMO personal robot and Sony's AIBO pooch really look and move like man and dog, respectively -- while Americans have focused on use and practicality.

Evolution Robotics' founder and executive chairman Bill Gross believes that the two minds are meeting now that robotics is asserting a global importance. The development of personal computers, the focus of popular technology for the last 20 years, has leveled off, shifting engineers' attention in other directions. "PCs have reached an evolutionary plateau," says Gross, a charismatic, bespectacled 43-year-old who bristles with the inquisitive energy of someone much younger. "They exploded in form, and now they're either a big box or a clamshell. The next has got to be voice and mobility. You've got to get the PC off the desk."

Evolution Robotics is housed at Idealab, Gross's tech-company incubator that grows businesses from seed and boots them out of the nest when they get big and successful enough to set up shop elsewhere. Evolution Robotics is but one of many such companies, though McNally admits it's taking up quite a bit of cubicle space at the moment.

Evolution Robotics has been busy in the nearly two years it's been around; the ER1 officially debuted in May of this year at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, garnering good reviews and yet confirming that robots haven't exactly made the leap from amusing gadget to indispensable tool. But the work to bridge that gap and make the world a more efficient place to live is proceeding in earnest. The sheer variety of robo-prototypes out there proves it: There's Slugbot (eats slugs), Tug (moves hospital equipment and supplies), Robomower (cuts the lawn), Ultrabot (Evolution Robotics' custom robot that follows people and moves according to voice commands) and Kismet, an attempt by MIT's robotics lab to develop a sentient robot that frowns, smiles and experiences moods -- the first in a race of beings scientists are calling "robosapiens."

My scary-robot red flag goes up -- having them think is unsettling enough, but having them feel is off the nerve scale completely. That aside, is it really necessary for robots to be so much like us? According to top roboticists, it is: Replicating human behavior is at the core of a personal robot's usefulness, and even our most reflexive behaviors, like walking and sitting, are fueled by feeling -- desire, contentment, anxiety, hunger and all the rest. Robots are still learning to walk on two feet, but it's only a matter of time before they'll need to fully know why they walk, and when.

There's already a school of thought called evolutionary robotics (not the company, just the name) that believes in letting robots develop increasingly complex behavior on their own, much like children do, rather than feeding them canned software. One such robot is MIT's Cog, which was "born" in 1993 and has since progressed to the crawling stage. Another in the works in Japan is Pino, an infant-like android equipped with a neural network meant to mimic the human brain. Japan has good reason to perfect a human robot: The country has a huge senior-citizen population with increasingly chronic health problems and not nearly enough people to tend to them. Engineer Ichiro Kato predicted nine years ago that, contrary to popular Western thinking, humanoid robots will augment humanity much more than diminish it. "Elderly people would find themselves more at ease with a personal robot than with burdening their families," he explained. And only "friendly anthropomorphism" will do. "If it doesn't walk and act like a human," he said disdainfully, "it isn't a robot. It's merely an automaton."

Perhaps because its military growth was curtailed after World War II, Japan has always embraced its technology and its machines, and robots are especially well-regarded -- Japanese comics consistently portrayed them as friends and superheroes, and gave them human names. Hence the Japanese dominate robotics, and their national obsession to produce a perfect humanoid is much like the international scientific race to crack the DNA code. The West, for all its innovations, has largely shied away from the idea, likely hampered by a Judeo-Christian wariness of playing God by creating robots -- or anything else -- in our own image. The very term robot is rooted in European pessimism: the Czech word for slave or "forced laborer," it was taken from a 1921 play by Karel Capek called Rossum's Universal Robots, or R.U.R., a cautionary tale about robots who rise up over time and destroy their human masters. The American cultural references to robots have been generally dark, especially in film -- HAL 9000 in "2001," the belligerent replicants of Blade Runner, the tortured man-machine hybrid of RoboCop. It may be that, after centuries of oppressing and exploiting others, Westerners are projecting in robots a fear of karmic comeuppance that may lie just around the corner.

On the other hand, we've had decent, entirely law-abiding robots like R2-D2 and C-3PO of "Star Wars," the stoically loyal android of "Aliens," the eager-to-please humanoids of last summer's "A.I." If we are not entirely ready for robots, we may at last be seriously contemplating the benefits of having them around. It could be as Jude Law, playing a gigolo robot in A.I., says to a curious but skittish first-time client: "Once you have me, you'll never go back to a real man again."

Few of us would be willing to go that far. But few of us with computers would ever go back to pecking typewriters, and, really, we couldn't anyway: The world isn't set up for typewriters anymore. The folks at Evolution Robotics and elsewhere expect that one day soon the world will be set up for personal robots, which they view as not something up for debate but simply the way of productivity. It's this Zen-ish outlook that drives Bill Gross' sunny brand of American ingenuity; he made his money with Internet concerns like Citysearch.com, and he lost no time in determining the next technological big thing. Gross agrees there's a big cultural fear of robots, but doesn't expect that's going to stop anything. "You want a robot to be like a Palm Pilot, not a human," he muses. "Over the next 20 years we'll be having discussions about the morality of artificial intelligence just like we're having discussions now about the morality of cloning and genetics." Those discussions might still be going when we get around to robots, but McNally believes robots will prove their worth quickly in so many ways -- in hospitals, in homes, on the battlefield -- that ancient doubts about them will be largely dispelled. "We can't imagine the necessity of robots in our lives now, but look at the microwave," she says. "Look at where it ended up." Rodney Brooks, director of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab, went a step further in declaring that "in the new millennium, we will become our machines." The unexpectedly heartening corollary is that our machines are becoming us.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.