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Humanity has just crossed a symbolic threshold: the number of devices connected to the Internet has exceeded the human population on Earth.
Unlike humans, who can have both a real-world identity and a virtual identity – present on Facebook or Vkontakte, for example – these devices’ virtual identities are their only ones.
This phenomenon, where the Internet is populated by objects as well as people, is known by IT analysts as “an Internet of Things.”
It is not only that robots and technological devices are developing their own identities, however: they are also capable of recognizing distinct human features. Robots developed by Magnitogorsk-based Android Technologies, for example, some with strikingly anthropomorphic features, are able to distinguish different voices and faces.
Traditionally associated with manufacturing and research laboratories, robots are moving into the consumer realm. Not many fit the popular conception we have of humanoid forms replicating human motion, but the devices are becoming more popular on the international consumer electronics market.
Sergei Titov, commercial director of the Russian branch of the U.S.- based company IRobot, said that last year, his company alone sold 200,000 robotic vacuum cleaners in Japan, and about 170,000 in Spain. Although Russian sales have not been impressive, they are rising.
“Russian housewives want to spend more time for themselves, so they buy robots to help them to take care of some tasks, like cleaning floors, for example,” he said.
While acceptance may be slow in coming, Titov hopes that people will get used to robots, just like they did with microwave ovens.
One of the problems with acceptance may be that we are already surrounded by working robots, but we do not even notice them.
“Many use robotic devices in everyday life and don’t even know about it, while others intentionally buy robots to help them clean swimming pools or mow lawns,” said Alexander Turkot, head of the IT cluster at the Skolkovo foundation.
Turkot believes that the Internet of Things could present interesting developments in robotics, such as multi-agent systems, where individual devices or robots interact with each other on their own network. These robots also possess systems that allow solutions to problems to emerge from within the robots and not be introduced from outside – for example, by programmers.
Learning like bees
Such systems can create what is known as swarm intelligence, or the “bees’ algorithm,” Dave Evans, chief futurologist and chief technologist for Cisco Systems, said in an e-mail to The Moscow News.
As applied to the Internet of Things, the algorithm means that robots “will be able to access vast amounts of information to learn new skills as needed for a given task,” Evans said. Robots “will be able to share learnings with one another via machine-specific social networks, so they can learn at exponential rates.”
Giving robots the ability to learn independently seems to be the stuff of science fiction nightmares, but such thoughts should probably stay in “Battlestar Galactica.”
“They will become faster, more dexterous and physically superior to humans, but unlike the science fiction of Hollywood, we do not have to worry about them taking over, as they are in essence sophisticated tools that allow humans to work at more strategic levels and offload the mundane,” Evans said.
Another, more plausible cause for concern is the economic impact, something that is evident in the decline in manufacturing jobs in Western economies as automation has become common. Science fiction may provide one answer here, in the form of Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics,” especially the provision that a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm—expanding the definition of injury or harm to mean economic, not just physical.
More realistically, however, Evans said that machines could help humans to create new high-tech jobs, such as artificial intelligence designers, interface and ergonomic engineers, maintenance and repair workers, and software developers.
The elimination of certain jobs, or certain aspects of thrse jobs, may be something to welcome rather than fear. As much as futurologists predict we will see robots in health care and hospitality within the next 10 to 20 years, we could also see them in dangerous fields, such as nuclear power plant operations, search and rescue, and military and espionage missions.
The space industry has found uses for robots in conducting dangerous tasks. Android Technologies is about to send one to the International Space Station, to join the NASA-built Robonaut-2, which was delivered to the ISS in February 2011.
The company hopes in the future to develop more models for planetary exploration, but the significance of the ISS model is its anthropomorphic form.
Yury Filatov, one of the robot’s engineers, said, “We are the only ones in Russia who have made a fully humanoid machine, and we are considering developing more for use on other planets.”
Keeping up appearances
The issue of appearance raises interesting questions, with human preconceptions over what robots should look like a likely obstacle to recognizing them where they are working. Many people associate them with a humanoid look, so even a robotic vacuum cleaner or lawn mower may pass without mention.
“I am not sure that a humanoid shape is optimal for a robot,” Turkot said. “Androids can probably play football better, but when it comes to cleaning floors, I don’t think it’s an ideal form.”
Evans said that some robots will be so small as to be invisible to the naked eye, but human desires to build machines that look like them have an explanation.
“[Robots] need to work in a world of humans,” he said. “Our homes or tools have been designed around our humanoid form factor, and it makes sense to design some robots to look like us so they work well within our environment.”
Unlike the specific task-oriented models envisioned by Turkot, the adaptability of a humanoid structure would allow for multi-purpose machines, Evans added.Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #30"
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