After seeing the latest Terminator movie, I’ve spent weeks in an undisclosed location preparing for the coming mechanized apocalypse. For me, it is all too clear that I’ve been an accidental collaborator in encouraging our trust in machines. Having thoroughly searched my sources, I’ve finally found what very well may be our greatest threat since broadcast television signals were changed to digital. Its name is the PR2, and it’s coming to infiltrate our homes and businesses. I’m sure once you learn about this despicable creature, you’ll agree we have much to fear.
The PR2, short for Personal Robot 2, is an autonomous robot developed by Willow Garage, a Silicon Valley research group. It’s being hailed as a considerable leap forward in robotic technology that doesn’t require human assistance. In tests, the robot has successfully opened doors on its own and figured out how to find electrical outlets for charging. It has traveled 26 miles around the Willow Garage office building without human input in a single test. But its creators say the machine requires handicap-accessible buildings to operate effectively. To protect Ann Arbor residents, I propose Mayor Hieftje find buildings that aren’t handicap-accessible to have residents take shelter in. Michigan Stadium is clearly the best place to hold out against the coming e-horde.
If, however, these machines cannot be stopped by stairs, then there may be little hope for us. The PR2 moves at the blistering speed of one and a quarter miles per hour. Combine that with its ability to charge itself after only several hours at an outlet, and we have a threat that will not tire, will not feel and, if it spots you, will keep bumping into you until you die of old age.
Maybe I’m getting it all wrong. What if technology doesn’t try to kill us by conflict, but by subversion? After all, robots are getting smarter. Robotics has gone from mere remote-controlled machines to computers capable of besting us at Chess in only the past 60 years. The Joint-Action Science and Technology project in Europe has developed a robot that can anticipate what humans require assistance with, and in Japan a robot named Ninomiya-kun can read physical Japanese books. What books it reads on its off-days are anyone’s guess, but perhaps it’s learning our culture so it can get into our heads.
Okay, so maybe we aren’t in any danger of being poisoned by a robot butler or chased down the streets by ravenous attack robots with Austrian accents. That being said, the complexity of robots has exploded in an extremely brief time. While the capabilities of machines such as PR2 seem trivial, their evolution is astounding. Nature needed hundreds of millions of years to get from single-celled archaea to crude invertebrates. At this rate, truly intelligent artificial life may be possible in our lifetime.
While some robot concepts, such as artificial maids, are the more convenience-oriented end of robotic research, we have to remember this technology is invaluable for dangerous jobs. Robotics eliminates the human factor in situations involving hazardous waste, confined spaces, dangerous geologic areas and, most prominently, space exploration to the far corners of our solar system.
Easy examples to cite are bomb-disposal robots and remotely-operated military reconnaissance planes that replace pilots flying over enemy territory. The Spirit and Opportunity Rovers on Mars are another example, each conducting months of exploration and research without risky, expensive human missions to the planet. In areas contaminated with radioactive waste, robots are used to collect samples without endangering technicians.
It can be easy to poke fun of robotics sometimes, wondering how scientists can get so excited over a self-charging robot. But in the end, research into machines such as PR2 are a benefit to society, and are just the first steps to really exciting creations to come.
Ben Caleca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.