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The robot rebellion is only a matter of time
[June 15, 2009]

The robot rebellion is only a matter of time

Jun 15, 2009 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune News Service via COMTEX) -- Gina Holechko figures humans have 50 years left _ 100, if we're lucky. After that, the robots become self-aware and harvest our skins to build hammocks. Think Transformers with the animosity of the Terminators.

Holechko is president of the Chicago Speculative Science Fiction Writers Group. She speculates, and so a few days before I headed to the Robots and Vision Motion Control Show in Rosemont, Ill., last week, I called her, and she told me: "It's unfortunate Hollywood thinks about robots going rogue and murdering people without considering how a takeover might actually happen _ little by little, until we become comfortable. You talk to an automated voice to pay your phone bill? It's that kind of pervasiveness. What scares me is the shell they put on them now. We used to see the insides of our computers. Now you don't know what's going on. Go to the show, and look for the ghost in the machine. The ghost in the machine is your concern." The soul, in a sense.

The RVMCS is the robotics industry's big gathering. It ended Thursday and was not open to the public. But I went, and I asked about the truth behind the coming robot uprising, and (this is chilling), quite often, people smiled, then began to consider the question _ a guy from Sony (however facetiously) told me that when the inevitable robot war happens, he hopes every killer robot is using a Sony camera for its optical system.

An engineer from Flint confided: "The day of self-awareness in robots? I think about that every day." A salesman from South Korea with an $800 robot man explained his robots are not far enough along to think for themselves, but _ "Maybe 40 years from now?" He put the foot-tall man down. It stepped forward, balanced on one foot, waved, balanced on the other foot. I asked him if it ever falls. He pushed at the robot's chest. It toppled back. Then, after a second, as if it were fuming, it kicked its legs out, planted its feet and rose. Are we sowing seeds of our destruction, I asked.

"Half and half," he said.

Robot holocaust? Oh, it's coming.

A Hal 9000 from "2001: A Space Odyssey" with the people skills of a Robocop _ only everywhere, self-aware and self-replicating? It may be our most durable science-fiction scenario: Technology rises up to destroy us _ played out every summer in movie theaters _ but at the moment, a remarkable number of engineers and robotics companies and theorists have been giving serious consideration to the thought of self-aware robots with an intelligence and agility that uncomfortably surpasses our own.

Actually, Holechko aside, it's the pop-culture folks I spoke with who gave a robot holocaust the least consideration. Before the show, I talked to Rusty Nails (his real name), who hosts the annual sci-fi festival at the Chicago's Music Box Theatre. He cited the robot stories of Philip K. Dick (such as "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" which was adapted into "Blade Runner") as inspiration but said, "We'll destroy ourselves before robots get a shot." I spoke with Scott Farrar of Industrial Light & Magic, the effects supervisor on the new "Transformers" film and the forward-seeing "A.I." and "Minority Report." He's not seeing it.

Yet what he spoke of was what engineers at the RVMCS spoke of accomplishing for real: "Our Transformers are defined by their construction, which means, for instance, in the new film, we have more facial areas to show emotion, so we had to think of how to mimic lips and cheeks. It's a curious tightrope you have to walk: Make them look substantial, and yet extremely agile." Indeed, though my question _ "How concerned should we be about robots taking over the world?" _ sounds facetiousness, it contains a number of real issues.

"The conversation I'm hearing is less about a takeover," said Dennis Roberson, vice provost of new initiatives at Illinois Institute of Technology. "It's more insidious _ it's about bionic capabilities being implanted, working their way upward, getting closer to the brain." Cyborgs? "The way we think about technology, especially robots, is completely driven by science-fiction scenarios," said P.W. Singer, director of the 21st Century Defensive Initiative at the Brookings Institution and author of "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century." He said that while researching his book he talked to a military officer whose ideas of what to build came from watching "The Empire Strikes Back." "We don't have to reach a world where metal ones are coming for us," he said. "It's a reality. They're here. We've flown 7,000 drones in Iraq. You could argue we're in a robot war in Pakistan right now." (EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM) As I glanced across the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, the scene on the floor of the RVMCS had the vague look of a large avant-garde interpretive dance performance. One robot shuffled pieces of bologna on a conveyor belt. Another shot free throws at a basketball net, casually hitting each one, pausing periodically, then staring downward as if realizing it had forgotten to feed the cat before leaving the house.

Engineer Raad Asmaro told me, "Most of these robots are stupid. They work within a limited environment, and only do what we say." Which is what I heard from most robot makers, and which is why the crowd before Toyota's shiny white Partner Robot stood 20 deep, awe-struck. The Partner Robot is almost 5 feet tall. It has Princess Leia's bun hairdo and the placid face of the rogue robots from "iRobot." The Partner Robot, a Toyota representative explained to me, is basically a showcase of technology, nothing more. But like many robots here, even the robotic arms, it gave the fleeting appearance of self-awareness: the hesitations, the quick casual moves. Partner Robot lifted a trumpet to its lips and played "I Just Called To Say I Love You," its phrasing subtle.

"The Partner Robot is not meant to replace people," the representative told me, eerily serene herself. "Just serve." She explained the trumpet playing was a demonstration of finger agility and the air compressor in its chest _ lungs, basically _ blows air through its mouth and into the instrument. I stepped back _ startled.

I walked over to a Cornell University booth, where a designer showed me self-replicating robot blocks that stack higher and higher, lean over (seriously), then gather parts to build more robot blocks. Quite "Matrix"- like. The robot spider was worse. The designer explained it was a study of resilience, having been programmed with no knowledge of itself. Engineers left it alone for years _ and it learned how to walk.

I stumbled backward, disgusted, and met Robert Corder, an American who helps bring businesses into Japan.

"How soon before the robots kill us all?" I asked him.

"Don't say that, please," he said. "It makes my life so hard." He was there with robotic therapy devices, which is a cold way of describing Corder's cuddly robotic baby seals with big liquid eyes and long lashes.

Corder said he has a hard time explaining the concept of service robots to Americans.

"The Japanese are accepting of robots, but over here, everyone tells me robots are going to kill them or replace them." I listened, and as I held the seal I glimpsed that ghost in the machine. It squeezed its eyes shut. I petted its button nose.

"That has two computers," Corder said.

"And it learns." I put it back. "So," I asked again, "how soon before robots really kill us, Robert?" "Don't say that!" (END OPTIONAL TRIM) On my way out, I noticed a poster outside the display for ABB Robotics. The sign boasted that ABB provided the robotic arms in "Terminator Salvation." I approached a salesman. "Can we blame you guys when the robots come?" I asked him.

He winced.

"Our robots from 'Terminator'? Weeks to program. Don't look at me. You want the guys at Toyota. They got this robot that plays a trumpet. If one takes over the world, it'll be trumpet guy." (EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) ___ CAN'T SAY WE DIDN'T SEE IT COMING In 1914, H.G. Wells published "The World Set Free," an anti-war novel and a fervent argument against dabbling in atomic weaponry. Of course, it also led Leo Szilard, an early Hungarian researcher of atomic weaponry, to consider the idea of atomic bombs. So don't say you never saw it coming: that is, the inevitable robot holocaust. The following is a highly selective timeline of events that are leading to it.

1770: The Turk, the world's first automated chess-playing machine, debuts in Vienna. Turns out, it's a fraud, but still ...

1818: Mary Shelley publishes "Frankenstein," which suggests electricity could bring a monster to life.

1927: Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" envisions a future in which the lower classes are tramped down by technology.

1961: Arthur C. Clarke writes "Dial F for Frankenstein," which imagines our telephone systems staging an uprising.

1984: James Cameron's B-movie "The Terminator" promises a robot holocaust at the hands of self-aware robots.

1986: "Robot Holocaust" is released. Goes straight to video _ possibly because it is too prescient? 1989: IBM unveils Deep Blue, a chess computer. Eight years later, it beats world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

2002: The Roomba is introduced, the first mass-consumer robotic vacuum cleaner.

2029: Computers achieve human-level AI (or so promises artificial-intelligence pioneer Raymond Kurzweil).

___ Christopher Borrelli: ___ (c) 2009, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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