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My son, Chuck, is currently working on building a robot. His robot looks like a small tank with treads a and a mechanical arm with a claw on the end. It is a simple kind of robot that is only required to perform simple tasks, but the whole point is that he is required to design it, build it, and program it to function efficiently. Chuck has kept me apprised of the progress on this project since we both find robotics kind of fascinating and I occasionally look for material on the subject from which we can both learn. In the course of my search I found a documentary online that promised to show us all the latest technology in the field of robotics. We didn't enjoy it as much as we thought we would.
The film started out interestingly enough, showing all sorts of brilliant industrial robotics that perform all sorts of amazing tasks. These robots are generally just huge, articulating arms with claws that can handle incredibly delicate instruments and tiny parts. They were cool. They also showed some medical robots that were fascinating – able to perform the most delicate kinds of surgery. They rounded out the first segment of the documentary demonstrating robots that do dangerous tasks like disarming bombs and performing tasks in environments that would be dangerous to humans. These robots were amazing and obviously extraordinarily helpful to mankind.
The second third of the film was about robots designed to help people in numerous ways. Some of them assisted the handicapped, provided information, answered questions, cleaned houses, and all sorts of neat stuff. Some of these robots were really cute, in an R2-D2 and C3PO kind of way, with some of them looking like adorable little metal creatures and others vaguely humanoid. There was one little white robot made by Honda that was cute as a button. It was designed to assist people with disabilities, kind of like a guide dog with opposable thumbs and it could do everything from sew on a button to walk upstairs. I liked that little robot. It was about 4 feet tall and adorable. It looked like a 4 ft guy in a spacesuit and it could run, walk up stairs, ride a bike, kick a ball, pour you a drink, walk down a hallway and avoid people and objects and just generally do amazing things. It also can identify objects, learn new ones, and recognize things it had never seen before by association. It was cool.
The last third of the program was dedicated to human looking robots, and this is where I started to get totally creeped out. The Japanese seem to be determined to create robots that look like young women from Tokyo, which lends itself to no end of creepy associations for me. There is one company that makes robot girlfriends, something makes my skin crawl. These robots are remarkable but somehow equally horrifying. Robot girlfriends...really? Yuck. Almost as bad are the robot babies, I could barely look at those. With each new humanoid robot they showed Chuck and I cringed more and more. They reminded me of those gypsy fortune teller automatron things I used to see in arcades as a kid that would tell your fortune for a quarter. They were disturbing and oddly threatening and I hated them. Not only were they nasty, but they never gave me a fortune that I liked. When you are 8 years old and an evil looking gypsy robot tells you that you are going to meet a tall, dark stranger it is disturbing.
On the up side there was a toddler robot that was used to communicate with severely autistic children and teach them social skills, which is cool, but it looked more like a doll than a human kid. Amazingly, the little ones who were unable to communicate, touch or be touched by any living person were able to make eye contact, talk to, and even hug the little robot, which was quite moving to see. Apparently, there is a theory that living people give out electrical impulses that repel very autistic people that robots do not, which is both fascinating and ironic. This robot was obviously a very useful and meaningful tool that is used to help people, and that makes perfect sense. Japanese girl receptionists sitting in the lobbies of huge corporations, however, strikes me as both pointless and slightly eerie. Why is a robot girl better than a real girl who could use the job to do things like live and eat? Its just wrong and, I'm sorry, more than a little chauvinistic if you ask me.
The end of the documentary focused on the design of exoskeletons, which are kind of like robots worn outside the body to make people stronger, faster, and better like the 6 million dollar man, although I'm pretty sure they cost a lot more than that now. In theory, exoskeletons could be used by people who are paralyzed to that they can walk, a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, however, most of the funding for this kind of research seems to be going into exoskeletons to be used in military applications to create super-soldiers, which is just a little frightening.
How about we take some of those big-brain people currently designing receptionists, dates for lonely guys, and killing machines and turn them to developing ways to help people walk again or replace severed limbs? Or maybe creating helpful and charming companions for the elderly and shut-ins? And please, don't try to make them look like people...the little Honda robot, Asimo, made us say, “awwww...” The girlfriend in the cocktail dress, on the other hand, just made us say, “ewwwww.”
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