"Don't you call me a mindless philosopher, you overweight glob of grease!"
- C-3PO to R2-D2
Definition of robot:
Look at me! I'm a robot too! MC2 here, ready to give you the info on robots and robotics. First of all, the above quote betrays a lot about robots in Star Wars, and even in SciFi in general. They usually have personalities (why would C-3PO not like R2-D2? Because that's the type of personality he has!), and if you have seen the movie, you know 3PO delivers this line in an incredibly humanlike type of way. Here we talk about how robots generally work, both in SciFi and in real life, the possibility of creating things like AI (artificial intelligence) and AP (artificial personalities, like 3PO's). We will talk about what shape or forms they exist in today, what shape or forms they exist in SciFi series, and what shape or form is the most practical. We will also address a very important question which is brought up in the SciFi series Dune: are robots a good thing? You can, of course, click on the links on the sidebar to take you to a page dealing specifically with robots in that SciFi series (or the absence of them).
But you can go too far . . . Some people just don't know when to stop. People are already starting to use robots for destructive purposes. One such event is when a robot was sent into "battle" covered in bibles. Then the robot was to be flame-broiled by a jet engine. Needless to say this upset quite a few Christians and other religious people. People are also using the robots to stage fights. Chip Flynn (one of the people who design and battle robots) recently has built a 20 ft. long robot centipede that has extremely sharp teeth, flame-thrower arms, and a gasoline sprayer. Hmmm, how would you like to see that loose in Los Angeles?
Besides all that destructive stuff, robots today are mainly used to do things that normal humans would find dangerous or boring, like cleaning up nuclear power plants or working on assembly lines. Usually robots are controlled by a central computer which functions much like the CPU and motherboard inside the computer you're using right now. It receives input, processes the input, and translates it into output. An example of this is a walking robot seeing a bump in the road, figuring out it needs to go around it, and then sending the command to its legs to change direction. In this way it works somewhat like a brain, but lacks the capacity to reason beyond choosing from the possible choices programmed into it. Say, for example, the bump in the road was not large, and the robot could have jumped over it. But a robot cannot come up with this idea unless the makers of the robot have programmed that as a possible way of getting around bumps in the road. This leads scientists to search for a way to create what is called AI (artificial intelligence). This basically means let the robot be able to make its own decisions, and function just as a normal human would. But AI already exists in the mind of many science fiction authors. Robots in SciFi are intelligent and sometimes even have personalities (R2-D2 is able to convey emotions in beeps and whistles even though he can't talk!). I know for a fact that in Star Wars robots, and even spaceships, have "brains" in them.
Scientists have been trying to create AI for 40 years! This says something about the difficulty of successfully creating and implementing an AI system. The primary components of an AI for robots would be an advanced intelligence, an understanding of human nature, the ability to reason, and flexible planning and decision making abilities. Although they have not achieved their goal, scientists have made significant progress with several different approaches. These include the rule-based system, case-based reasoning, and neural networks. The rule-based approach focuses ion making the robot or computer an expert in a particular subject area. By choosing a small area of expertise, scientists can program extensive knowledge about the subject into the computer or robot. IBM's Deep Blue, the chess playing computer, is one such system. The computer is able to weigh various possible outcomes of certain moves to find the best one. The problem with this is obvious: ask Deep Blue what blue means, and you'll crash the system or get an error message. A second approach is to use what is called case-based reasoning. Instead of blindly following rules, the computer or robot would draw analogies, comparing the situation confronting it with one it knows of already, determining which are most similar, and drawing information from the comparisons. The problem with this is that, unless the comparison is straightforward, the system will have difficulty determining which comparisons are suitable and which are not. To do that the computer needs to have what we call "common sense". While we tend to take it for granted, this knowledge is very difficult to program into a computer. A third, and probably more viable, solution is to use what is called neural networks. If we give the computer a "brain" made of neural networks, it would be able to perceive events around it and learn from experience. This gives the computer the potential to develop intelligence, just like a human child does as it grows up. Regular computers are governed by a single processor. The brain consists of roughly one hundred billion nerve cells or neurons, each connected to ten thousand others. In imitation of a brain, neural networks consist of many simple processors without any central governing program. These processors are connected to each other like neurons in a brain. This gives neural networks, unlike normal computers, the ability to process more than one piece of information at once. The problem with this is apparent: The complexity of the human brain is amazingly difficult to duplicate. So far scientists have only gotten to one fiftieth of the brain power of a cockroach. Neural networks are currently being used to recognize patterns and are able to predict trends in the stock market.
Could computers or robots be given human-type emotions, a. k. a. personalities? Why would we want them to have personalities in the first place? Too much emotion in both people and robots can lead to irrationality or psychosis. Yet, some scientists argue, so can too little. Reasons why you would want emotions in a robot include the fact that emotion inspires loyalty to the owner or friends and that emotion is the basis for conscience. If a robot was acting based on logic and reason only, no matter how nice you are to him, if the person next door was offering free oil baths every day, the robot would go over and work for your neighbor. If he was acting on emotion, he would have developed a sense of loyalty towards you and have stayed with you in spite of your neglect (by the way, have you fed your hamster today?). Conscience is important for the obvious reasons that you don't want your robot going on a killing spree because he can do his job faster that way.
In spite of C3PO's appeal, humanoid is not the best shape or form for a robot. For one, humans have way too little arms for the tasks we'd want robots to do. Another point is that two legs are not very stable. I won't go into all the specifics about the center of gravity and all that, but basically four legs are very good for stationary objects (ask any table), but for mobile robots, six legs are a much better solution, allowing the owner to pick up three legs at once. Another idea is to have robots use wheels instead of legs (like R2D2). This is much more stable, but does not allow travel on rough terrain. Two eyes are also not very useful; if you want to see in a wide direction have at least four or more eyes. If you are just looking to see what is in front of you, why not go with microscopic or telescopic vision? Most scientists have realized this and implemented it in their robots.
For my last point: Are robots a good thing? While there is practically no debate about "unintelligent" machines being used, in the Dune series a crusade called the Butlerian jihad took place hundreds of years before the book began. This jihad had the theme that a machine should not be made in the likeness of a human's mind. Our current level of technology does not force us to face this problem. But, science fiction is often a precursor to our future dilemmas, and this situation in particular seems to be looming in our near future (remember The Matrix?). Some people are not exactly happy about this. After they fight our wars, what will they do? Will they take over earth? Exterminate all human life? Some people fear that we are going to make the robots so much like humans that they will be able to think for themselves. In about 50 years it is likely they will be able to exceed us in anything from wisdom to strength. At what point does the machine become human? All I can say is that I hope we make the right choice.
Final thoughts: when you compare the evolution of humans to the evolution of robots, robots are going about ten billion times faster. Pretty soon the government will probably have robots fighting all our wars. These robots are better than humans because they are much more efficient, quicker, and I'm sure you'd much rather lose a few thousand dollars than a good friend. Robots are just going to keep getting "bigger and badder", and we will have to learn to ajust. Unless, of course, the future takes the course of the SciFi series Dune, and we eliminate all machines fashioned in the likeness of a human's mind. But no matter how advanced in technology they get, we are their creators. Remember that, above all.