Feb 212012

Remote-Controlled Humanoid WarBots
So DARPA got some so-called Avatar robot money in next year’s budget. This is interesting news that slips neatly into anthrobotic.com’s WarBot thread, but for those who follow the WarBot-machine-drone-non-directly-human-remote-watching/killing/delivering field of technology, it’s hardly a revelation. Becasue Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk, K-MAX, Sentinel, Packbot.
And more:
Drone aircraft and other remotely controlled vehicles in our unmanned arsenal already function as primitive avatars, so obviously this is a logical next step. But, as with most things DARPA, it begins an interesting discussion.

First, a question I haven’t quite figured out is:
Where’s the line between robot and R/C car or plane or whatever? Some consider our various military drones to be robots, but we wouldn’t really consider this here to be a robot:
Other than size and munitions and relocating to Nevada in order to play with it, isn’t a Predator drone essentially the same thing? Which is a robot and why? I don’t know, man!

What about an automated parking garage? Aren’t those kind of like building-sized robots lugging cars up and down and to and fro? Shouldn’t a gigantic semi-autonomous robot have geeks like me all kindsa dorktastically excited?
They don’t. Well, maybe me a little bit.

The thing is, there’s a kind of animal vanity at work here. I think in order for us to call something a robot, we want it to be at least vaguely modeled after something that is actually living. Or has lived. Because I’ve seen a robot T-Rex before, and it was unquestionably a robot.

Red = Pissed Off.

Faces and Biological Mimicry Make a Big Big Difference
Yeah – funding for DARPA’s either plagiarizingly or old-schoolly named “Avatar” project was to be expected – I guess what makes this news particularly special and/or troubling is that DARPA is requesting research on a “bipedal” and likely humanoid vehicle for this project – one can’t help but imagine stomping around in Cameron’s T-101. As we’re effectively hardwired to recognize the human form and faces of all kinds, I think this is where the uncanny avatar creepiness factor really hits – as it must, because for the battlefield, you’ve gotta expect the humanoid WarBot to have a scary face to strike fear into the target, yeah?

For a nice sci-fi preview of the concept, see Aaron Sims’ latest short “Archetype.

What IS a Robot?
In regular discussion and theory, the term “robot” is associated with the specifically mechanical. Čapek’s original implication of “robota” was non-, yet near-human slave laborers – they were constructs more akin to super-advanced androids. The robota were capable of thinking for themselves, decided slavery was uncool, eventually revolted, and extinguished humanity.
Our robots aren’t at that point, but…

Evolution is as It Does or is Done to It
I don’t think we’ll go in the machines-get-mad-and-kill-all-humans direction, but a human-inspired robotic avatar program is a curious step toward 1. making our war machines more like ourselves in appearance, and 2. the possibility of our machines, someday, ummm…  waking up.

What I’m getting at here is, as human-to-machine-to-AI/NBI interfaces advance, and more and more of the operator’s consciousness ports into or is exposed to any construct with a sufficiently accommodating cognitive substrate, an unintentional lingering of awareness could just sorta, you know, happen – the emergent nature of intelligence.

I realize that paragraph was only one sentence.
Sorry. That’s just how it comes out.

Getting self-awareness into a machine could also be done intentionally. It’s done in Cameron’s film – one of the fictional Avatars, reducible essentially to biological robots, eventually becomes a receptacle for the main character (absorbs the mind, soul, pattern, ghost, whatever, WTF?).

The vague origin story of human consciousness, which science can for now only understand as an emergent property of the squishy grey organ between our ears, in logic demands acceptance of the idea that intelligence can just, as stated above, sorta… happen. If it can happen in our heads, why not in some robot avatar warbot suit device thingy into which we put our figurative minds?

(As an aside, you know I don’t remember a lot of religious people being, like, totally offended by Avatar – were they just not paying attention? Maybe the god of earth-based religion only manages earth-based soul traffic?)

Anywho, looking past Cameron’s lack of holistic context in the future tales he tells (see: The Avatar Example), you can see that he’s actually addressing, perhaps unintentionally, some serious existential questions. Because as we now struggle with what a robot is, where it ends and where the R/C vehicle and/or its operator begins, humanoid, bipedal WarBots and their operators could eventually face a similar crisis of boundary – one massively more profound.

And Jim, I totally dig your eye candy, but your timelines…
I’m going to go ahead and guess that our increasingly cyborg society is going to have to address this much, much sooner than 130-some years from now.

Oh, and gamers – way to to go.
Totally got a jump on this growth sector.


Where the Human Ends & the Machine Begins: Getting Unclearer…
The Disabled Wage War Against the Wheelchair and Begin Test-Piloting Transhumanism
WarBot Update: WarBots in the News, WarBots Here, There, Everywhere.
REMINDER: More than 1/50 American Soldiers in Afghanistan is a Robot, with Helicopters!
Leaping Across Mori’s Uncanny Valley: Androids Probably Won’t Creep Us Out