Posts Tagged 'Robots'

The ever warm topic of robotics is heating up once again.

It’s hard to disentangle if the advent of two robot related TV shows is causing this spike of automated interest, or whether a bunch of companies have held their recent press releases to coincide with the promotional campaigns for said shows. Regardless of the timing, or the machinations of marketeers, there’s no doubting a shift in the wider messaging around the advent of more sophisticated robots within our lives.

To help define what we’re on about, have a look at these two pieces of data released by the business publication Forbes. The first shows off the countries that currently have the highest populations of industrial robots, while the second similar list marks out the countries with the greatest risk of human job losses to robotic workforces.

More demonstrable evidence of this tipping point can be found in the fact that Japan is addressing one interesting Sci-Fi issue – The Silver Tsunami – by introducing robot engineers to supplement an aging construction workforce. A similar situation is happening within North American agriculture, where the combined factors of a retiring itinerant workforce and a better standard of living in their native countries is leading to diminishing number of labourers within fruit farming. The solution? Harvest CROO Robotics!

It’s not just the human workforce that are being supplanted by increasing numbers of machines. While The Guardian’s round-up of robots mimicking animal behaviour neglects to mention Festo’s styalised droids, it does refer to NASA researching robotic bees for Mars exploration, as well as an octopoid robot powered by chemical reactions and hydrolics – that means zero mechanics parts.

So these are just some of the stories clustering behind the sensational moments depicted in the already well-received Westworld season two (see above), and the return of Channel 4’s Humans. Whether we like it or not, social demands, technological advancements and the needs of industry are making these fictions a reality. Which means the robotic revolution isn’t coming. It’s already here.

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Thanks to the rotational ambiguities of our planet, we’ve gained a final day in February to get this post out into the wild. It comes, however, with the realisation that it’s been a while since we checked in on the robotics side of things, and this needs to be addressed. Fortunately, Boston Dynamics have just released another of their anthropomorphic videos showing them tormenting their mechanised creations.

A while ago we ran a story about this supposed abuse alongside a, tongue in cheek, concern that these videos would warrant the displeasure of our robot overlords at some nebulous point in the future. Thankfully, it seems we’re not alone in this fretting and the Internet has risen to the call for clemency via a stack of parodies – our favourite of which resides above.

Beneath the supposed abuse and calls for a cessation of robot cruelty, there’s a deeper shift in cultural perception at work in our collective responses. Consider Georgia Institute of Technology’s recent experiment that resulted in 26 out of 30 participants following a misguided robot rather than taking the clearly signposted emergency exit during a simulated fire. Perhaps, despite previous research we’re starting to trust that machines know better.

In cinema, robots have also shifted from perpetrator to potential victim. While there’s always room for Professor Kettlewell’s creations, Terminators and Sentinals, the stories of late – see Ex Machina and Automata – have blurred the boundary between human and machine, resulting in morally ambiguous tales.

Automation of our houses, cars and places of work is well underway and we’re becoming increasingly accepting of this because each shift promises us more of that most precious of modern commodities… Time. Who knows where the upcoming leaps will take us in just the four short years until the next 29th of February? Although we’re predicting that job losses will be an inevitable bi-product of this transition.

Hopefully Drozbot will still be around to see if we’re right. If not, that can only mean our robot masters are far from merciful.

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Westworld

There’s little doubting that the Star Wars series has paid greater homage to the western genre than its military space exploration contemporary. While Star Trek continues to describe journeying into the ‘final’ frontier and, in the Spectre of the Gun, even recreated the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, it’s still a far shout from cowboys in space that was George Lucas’ Episode IV. Look at Luke Skywalker’s interstellar quest initially triggered by the murder of his aunt and uncle, and then consider the plots of any number of vengeance westerns and you’ll see what we’re attempting to unpick with this post.

You’d think, though, that with such a influential conjoining of genres, there’d be a plethora of other quality titles that either preceded Star Wars, or came afterwards. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Valley of the Gwangi (1969), Bravestarr (1987) and Cowboys and Aliens (2011) are really nothing to get overly excited about – unless you factor in a well-earned nod of animated appreciation for Ray Harryhausen’s work in the first instance. Thankfully quality does prevail, as the number of successes within this crossing of worlds out numbers the ‘also rans’.

Westworld (1973) is probably the most notable progenitor within this hypothetical space. Thanks to Yule Brynner’s haunting and relentless gunman, plus an early directorial outing by Michael Chriton, it has garnered appreciation ever since its release. It’s also the springboard for this post, as HBO plan to launch a 2016 TV series with Anthony Hopkins playing the role of Doctor Robert Ford.

There’s a big gap until the 26 episode anime excellence that was Cowboy Bebop (1997). While the feel of the show was definitely weighted towards the Sci-Fi end of the the influential scale, it’s constant riffing over western tropes ensures its inclusion here. Next Firefly (2002). Do we really need to say any more than that? Joss Whedon’s seminal and tragically curtailed TV series, enmeshed American Civil War sensibilities with rabid space zombies and came out shining and bright.

The remaining two space cowboys come from the realms of the comicbook. First up, the three-eye Weird Rider in Allan Moore’s beautifully nostalgic Tom Strong (2002) and then, finally, John Leather – AKA the Dead Ranger – from Warren Ellis’ excellent Planetary series (2005). Which, all told, doesn’t exactly give us a gang of genre warping rustlers, but does pack enough six guns to deputise this extraordinary posse.

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John Hurt 1984

Even before his explosive arrival on the Sci-Fi scene with the chest-bursting Kane in Alien (1979), John Hurt was already well recognised in our house. As Quinten Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (1975), Caligular in the BBC’s 1975 adaptation of I, Claudius and the titular Mr Forbush in Mr Forbush and the Penguins (1971), he established himself as a provocative and emotive character actor. Needless to say, beyond this realistic introduction, he’s since become a stalwart of the fantastical in so many guises and, with over 200 film credits to his name, it’s a hard task to chose the most influential roles for this post.

After the splatter-fest of his death in Ridley Scott’s extraterrestrial horror, Hurt went on to voice Snitter in the animated version of Richard Adam’s The Plague Dogs (1984). Equally as harrowing as Watership Down, the fact that one of the two plucky heroes may well be carrying the downfall of the human race was a smart twist that gave the tale an apocalyptic and timely resonance. Then, in Michael Radford’s 1984, it’s hard to now conceive who could have made a better Winston Smith to Richard Burton’s formidable O’Brien.

For Hurt the 1990s didn’t have as many standout moments within the genre, as he moved through a series of bit parts before securing a more prominent role in Guillmero del Toro’s adaption of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy (2004). From there a noteworthy reversal of roles from Winston Smith earlier to Alan Moore’s Fascist British leader in the film version of V for Vendetta. A smaller role in Lars von Triers Melancholia (2011) followed, and then straight into a 2013 Sci-Fi double feature as Gilliam in Bong Joon-Ho’s filmic version of Snowpiercer and then as the iconic lead in Doctor Who.

It all makes for an impressive CV but, even excluding the other roles beyond genre, it’s hard to avoid turning any article into a rambling list of achievements. That said, all of the above do offer something slightly more contemplative than action movies that happen to sport a Sci-Fi setting. Plus, it’s worth repeating just how influential Hurt’s presence is as an actor for fans of the fantastical, all the more so with his recent diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. If there was any time to show our collective appreciation it’s now and, usefully, he’s forward-thinking enough to remove any celebrity barriers to doing exactly that.. And, with David Yate’s Tarzan in post-production, there’s no sign of fatigue from Mr Hurt just yet.

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Happy, smiling robots holding hands. So here we are then, the future’s now and a host of mechanical marvels are attempting to recreate what artificers of old chased for centuries.

Earlier this year, in the physical world, Japan’s National Museum of Science and Innovation – Miraikan – showcased a wide selection of robots and simulacrum. Standing out from the gathered androids were Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro’s Kodomoroid – a female news reader that can relay tweets in a selection of voices – and an amorphous child-like creation called Otonaroid, that was reported to have a cheeky disposition.

Also in the land of the rising sun we find Pepper, another surprising advance in robotics. The first emotionally responsive android is how its creators, SoftBank, are promoting the device. Its key differentiation from other machines – aside from its sarcastic wit – is its ability to sense the reactions of its human counterparts and then adapt its behaviour accordingly.

Behind the mechanics another, more creative, tale is also developing alongside our synthetic pals. Take arts lecturer Julienne Greer from the university of Texas and her paper on “Building emotional authenticity between humans and robots”. Or, alternatively, consider Professor Mark Riedl’s drive to use poetry as an alternative Turing test to gauge machine AI.

Push a little further into the creative realm, and you arrive at Neil Blomkamp’s latest film, Chappie (see above). It’s a coming of age piece for a very different type of Bicentennial man, with a central character that bears a striking resemblance to one of the director’s early creations. Ex Machina is another tale of machines becoming increasingly human scheduled for 2015, only this time the film comes with an added meta level of mechanisation – protagonist Domhnall Gleeson previously played yet another simulacrum in the Black Mirror episode, “Be Right Back”.

From puppetry, through automatons to today’s humanoid robots. From basic AI through learning machines to robots designed to elicit emotion. It’s not hard to trace a direct thread connected to our deep-seated drive to replicate ourselves, whether that be through physicality or the arts.

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I should apologies. Straight back to the robo-apocalypse, but needs must when so many news stories shove a metallic digit in that general direction. The issue – as with last month’s post – remains whether the increasing robotisation of life will be beneficial or detrimental to humanity.

Perhaps the answer is as simple as that framed by Deckard in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. “[They] are like any other machine – they’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.” Despite his certainty, Deckard’s position within the film is a compromised one from the start. Similar, in some ways, to the practical and moral dimensions of raining remote death from the skies via military drone. At least, in the real world, this issue has recently ended up on a UN agenda for debate. However, Philip K Dick’s story generates an addition layer. Yes, we’ve been using machines to kill each other for centuries, but what if the machines we employ reach sentience and turn upon their supposed masters.

Scientists over at MIT have considered this very question and have now come up with an argument against the use of Isaac Azimov’s four laws of robotics. They also extrapolate the topic to a point where bio-mechanical advancements lead to a merging of man and machine. Hence the key factor always being that human, rather than machine, law will ultimately prevail. Similar theoretical conclusions have been reached at the National University of Ireland where Phil Maguire writes about computers naturally losing data in their decision making processes – resulting in an inability to ever generate emotional responses. Which means my opening apologies will, potentially, only ever be for a non-machine based readership. Seems that Optimus Prime riding a dino bot into battle to defend humanity (Azimov’s zeroth law), will only ever be a fiction.

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Atlas

A few observant tech writers have already noted the increasing similarity between DARPA’s Atlas and Arnold Gillespie’s original Robbie the Robot – designed for MGM’s Forbidden Planet. Now, with the coding of the robot’s operating system being opened to a competitive solution, the question resurfaces whether the result will be more Terminator than Robuster.

Robots becoming the dominant life form on earth isn’t anything new for sci-fi fans, but the topic is resurgent. This is possibly the result of evocative, cinematic re-visitations, but also thanks to some rapid and, in an increasing number of instances, unsettling advances in both computing and robotics.

Fictional works by writers like Daniel H Wilson are offering a greater prevalence of cautionary tales, arguing that we could well sleep-walking towards a Roboapocalypse. But, like Robbie, DARPA’s stated aim is altruistic. Atlas is to be a mobile, heavy lifter in any given disaster area – a machine designed to help rather than harm humans.

Isn’t this then what we want from our bright new future? A safer (weaponised drones), healthier (android carers for legion OAPs) and more industrious (nano-bot infested) world? Well, according to a recent Pew Research survey of the North American public, that ain’t necessarily so.

So, while we’re already willing to hand the tedium of the mowing or the vacuuming over to automation, it’s useful to spare a thought for some of the possible outcomes this increasing dependency may lead to.

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