Thursday, April 19, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Robots and Androids

Finally, we arrive to it: robots. So many of these fiction to reality posts have touched on robots or things robotic that I considered just skipping robots entirely, but, for some, that might be tantamount to ending a book just short of the climax and never finishing it. At any rate, robots have been, in many ways, what's driving this series of posts, so it wouldn't be exactly fair to leave them out, and I don't want any self-aware robots coming and asking me why I'd disrespect them in such a way. This post is also going to expand on my artificial intelligence post, so you might want to go back and read that one before going on with this one if you haven't already read it.

In many ways, the quest to develop or invent an "artificial man" has been as ongoing as the quest for flight throughout human history. These ideas extend back into myth and legend, and, as with flight, even Leonardo da Vinci had a design for a mechanical man. Maybe he even tried to build it. Instead of wading through all of that stuff, though, I'm going to jump ahead to our more modern view of what a robot is... except that we don't have a definitive view of what a robot is.

To facilitate the conversation, I'm going to define a robot as an electro-mechanical machine that has the semblance of intelligent behavior. These electro-mechanical machines can range from autonomous to remote controlled. This definition leaves out clockwork machines (which many people would like to say are the first examples of robots, but, then, that would, technically, make a clock a robot, and I'm not willing to go there).

Having said that, I will, however, go with Tik-Tok from Ozma of Oz as the first example of a modern robot in literature. Even though he was a clockwork, he was self aware and self motivating, making him a clockwork robot, not just a clockwork that looked like a man. It would be 15 years after the introduction of Tik-Tok before the word robot would be coined.
Speaking of, the term robot was first introduced in 1920 in a play, Rossum's Universal Robots, by Karel Capek. The word, basically, means drudgery, as that is the kind of work the robots in the play did. It doesn't end well for humanity.

As the 20th century progressed, robots became more and more common in fiction:
And, perhaps, the most famous robots ever (okay, not perhaps; we all know they are):

However, of all the fictional appearances of robots, it is probably Isaac Asimov's robot short stories and novels that have been the most significant, not least of all for his Three Laws of Robotics.

Surprisingly enough (at least to me), the first electronic robots were built in 1948 and 1949, Elmer and Elsie. The first truly modern robot was invented in 1954, the Unimate, by George Devol. He sold it to General Motors in 1960, and its installation began the modern robotics industry.

And this is where things get complicated. Complicated because the quest has always been to build an artificial human, not a mechanical arm, which is what the Unimate was. And for the last 50 years, that's what we've been trying to do. We've been trying to build the specific form of a robot that we call an android, which is what Asimov writes about, even if that's not what he calls them. But it is what we call R2-D2 and C-3PO -- droids. And here  is where we are today:
This is TOPIO 3.0, an android designed to play ping pong. He uses an advanced AI (artificial intelligence) that allows him to learn and improve his skill while playing. Basically, he adapts to the person he's playing against, learns how that person plays and adopts a strategy to beat the opponent. You can learn more about TOPIO here; although, I don't see a record of his wins and losses listed.

This is an Actroid, the most sophisticated android currently "alive." The newest model is named Sara
You can watch her explain how she works.

So... we're not quite to self aware, self motivating robots and androids, but we are stepping in that direction. In fact, robots are one of the biggest driving forces in AI research. Science fiction author Vernor Vinge (A Fire Upon the Deep, A Deepness in the Sky) believes we are heading toward a "technological singularity" (a term he coined) in which we will technologically develop a greater-than-human intelligence. Because we cannot comprehend the kinds of changes that will occur after such an intelligence is created, he calls this an "intellectual event horizon." With all the research and development in quantum computing and quantum nodes, I have a hard time thinking he's wrong. [My friend Rusty (who drew this picture of me) has been going on about Vinge for some time, now, and, so far, I haven't read anything by him. Not because I haven't wanted to, but because I'm way behind on my reading and haven't wanted to try to work anything new into the stack until I cut it down some; however, after reading this stuff, I'm going to have to work Vinge in.] It's not that Vinge is the only person to have written about these themes; we see them in science fiction a lot, usually with a very negative spin on it (the Terminator franchise, the Matrix trilogy), but he is the first to state his view so concisely, and this idea permeates much of his work. It will certainly be interesting to see how the future progresses in regards to artificial intelligence and robots!

The Three Laws of Robotics:
1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.


  1. Awesome awesome post. Of course, you can probably tell from my blog that this is one of my favorite topics. I'm kicking myself now for not mentioning Tik-Tok when I wrote about them. And while R2 is the most well known (and adorable of course), I've got to give it to the Terminator and T-1000 for being the scariest ever created. Too bad Asimov couldn't do something about THEM.

    Speaking of which, what about the Fourth/Zeroth Law of Robotics? Do you count that one? Some people don't, I've come to understand.

  2. Such a cool post.

    Don't forget the legend of the Golem of Prague in your list of "robots".

    Rabbi Loew created a Golem, according to folklore. He told it to go fetch some water from the well, then he fell asleep. When he awoke, the golem was pouring buckets of water into his flooded house. The first programming error!

    I'm coming back to read your entire blog!!!!!

    R is for Role Playing Games at my blog, Main Street Arts.

  3. Are those three laws from Vinge or from Asimov's I Robot?

  4. "Hyperion" and "Fall of Hyperion" by Dan Simmons also use that Vinge philosophy where the artificial intelligence has become much smarter than people. I think that's entirely possible because machines are able to keep advancing, whereas us humans are limited by our own brains. It'd be cool if as they build robots they could work out the kinks on cyborgs too. That way humans could have the best of both worlds.

  5. So have you heard of Asimo? He is (was?) a humanoid robot made by Honda. I don't know where he fits in in the robot timeline. I just remember I had a student do a presentation on him once.

  6. I don't know why science keeps trying to improve the android. Haven't they seen Bladerunner? Once those things become self-aware it gets ugly.

  7. Have you seen that new trailer for Prometheus?

  8. The technology behind Actroids and other robots/androids is interesting, but for some reason whenever I watch something with a humanoid, skin-tone face move in those jerky movements, it's almost painful. The ones with metal or other material for skin I don't mind. :P

    The Golden Eagle
    The Eagle's Aerial Perspective

  9. Have you seen the Geminoid-DK? There's tons of videos on YouTube, it's the most natural looking robot I've seen, it's facial features and facial movements are eerily human-like. If you've seen it in his creators TedX talk I think you'll agree that it was the worst Ted talk ever recorded... but the robot was interesting.

    The technological singularity is probably my favorite thing to think about (except for the Fermi Paradox), and I think the Ray Kurzweil has to be mentioned whenever the discussion goes that direction - he's a genius, but he's made it a religious thing almost, building up the heavenly aspects of the singularity so much that some people are calling it the "rapture for nerds." A lot of my blog's early posts (thank goodness no one was reading them then) were about the singularity and what it might mean for us if it really happens. As it's become more of a mainstream idea there is starting to be some pushback from intelligensia saying that this emergent AI superintelligence won't just happen, we'll have to work really hard to make it so, and even then, it won't be as cool as we'd like to think.

    Me, I just hope I live long enough to see for myself.

  10. S.L.: Yeah, I count the 0th Law, but most people haven't heard of that one, and it came much later. It's also philosophical in nature, which makes it more difficult to deal with.

    Hmm... scariest robot... I'll have to think about that before I'll agree to it being the T-1000.

    Arthur: I didn't forget about the golem, but it doesn't fit the definition of electro-mechanical. For the same, I discounted it from the earlier AI post, because it was magic related and not technological.

    Alex: Yes, the 3 laws come out of Asimov's robot short stories that were collected as I, Robot.

    Grumpy: It's been a while since I read Hyperion; I'm not remembering that at the moment. I probably need to read that again.

    M.J.: Yeah, I've heard of him. He's been kind of bypassed. Failure to continue to advance. At least, there hasn't been anything new from them since about 2000.

    L.G.: Well, I could you tell you, but, well, then...

    Matthew: I have! It's hard to miss it with Michael posting about it constantly.

    Golden Eagle: Yeah, it's a little weird. For me, mostly, it's the voice not quite matching the lips. Like I'm watching a badly dubbed movie. Still, they look incredibly real, and I could see mistaking one for an actual person from not too far away.

    Rusty: I haven't seen those, but I'll try to remember to look it up once I have a chance to catch a couple of breaths.

    Personally, I can see the possibility, but I'm not sure we'll get to it. We are coming close to being due for some new breakthrough, I'm just not sure which of these things it will be.

  11. Oh boy.

    I saw 2001 at too young an age, I think...I just don't like this at all. :(

  12. RG: 2001 has never been one of those movies that bothered me. Too slow, I think.


  13. That's interesting! Can you please share more about it? Thank you.

    Robotics Franchise