Monday, July 30, 2007

New York Times Article on "The Real Transformers"

The New York Times Magazine featured an article on robots and robotics which I found compelling. Several highlights of the article are featured below, followed by my commentary.

"Bill Gates has said that personal robotics today is at the stage that personal computers were in the mid-1970s. Thirty years ago, few people guessed that the bulky, slow computers being used by a handful of businesses would by 2007 insinuate themselves into our lives via applications like Google, e-mail, YouTube, Skype and MySpace. In much the same way, the robots being built today, still unwieldy and temperamental even in the most capable hands, probably offer only hints of the way we might be using robots in another 30 years."

Comment: I cannot imagine work or personal life without my pc, and recall all too well my first Radio Shack word processor, and how primitive it was relative to todays' offerings. Today's robots are primitive in that sense, but will evolve until they become so embedded in our lives that they become "pc-like."

"Sociable robots come equipped with the very abilities that humans have evolved to ease our interactions with one another: eye contact, gaze direction, turn-taking, shared attention. They are programmed to learn the way humans learn, by starting with a core of basic drives and abilities and adding to them as their physical and social experiences accrue. People respond to the robots’ social cues almost without thinking, and as a result the robots give the impression of being somehow, improbably, alive."

Comment: I believe I'd respond to a robot's social cues without thinking. Pretty eerie, but we're "programmed" to respond to such cues. I am also taken by the observation that you can program robots to learn.

"To qualify as that kind of (sociable) robot, they say, a machine must have at least two characteristics. It must be situated, and it must be embodied. Being situated means being able to sense its environment and be responsive to it; being embodied means having a physical body through which to experience the world. A G.P.S. robot is situated but not embodied, while an assembly-line robot that repeats the same action over and over again is embodied but not situated. Sociable robots must be both, as well as exhibiting an understanding of social beings."

Comment: The definition of a sociable robot-being both situated and embodied- is very helpful. I need to move beyond the term "robot" to "sociable robot," in order to better evaluate the role of robotics in health care.

"Scientists believe that the more a robot looks like a person, the more favorably we tend to view it, but only up to a point. After that, our response slips into what the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori has called the “uncanny valley.” We start expecting too much of the robots because they so closely resemble real people, and when they fail to deliver, we recoil in something like disgust."

Comment: There are pretty significant implications for robotic design, flowing from this condition. I wonder how important "person likeness" would be to an acutely ill, short stay patient or to a chronically ill, long term stay patient. Would there be a difference, based on patient condition and stay? And, would we be less demanding of "person likeness" when we are in a passive, patient role?

"The robot (weight-loss) coach, a child-size head and torso holding a small touch screen, is called Autom. It is able, using basic artificial-voice software, to speak approximately 1,000 phrases, things like “It’s great that you’re doing well with your exercise” or “You should congratulate yourself on meeting your calorie goals today.” It is programmed to get a little more informal as time goes on: “Hello, I hope that we can work together” will eventually shift to “Hi, it’s good to see you again.” It is also programmed to refer to things that happened on other days, with statements like “It looks like you’ve had a little more to eat than usual recently.”

Comment: Autom may be useful for my weight loss regimen, but I think I'd shut it down, if it nagged me too much. It does seem to reinforce the assertion that weight loss is aided by peer pressure, even if the "peer" happens to be a robot. However, they are certainly more cost-effective ways to lose weight.

"A few of these uBots are now being developed for use in assisted-living centers in research designed to see how the robots interact with the frail elderly. Each uBot-5 is about three feet tall, with a big head, very long arms (long enough to touch the ground, should the arms be needed for balance) and two oversize wheels. It has big eyes, rubber balls at the ends of its arms and a video screen for a face."

Comment: I wonder how I'd feel if I visited my Mom in a nursing home, and found her being tended by a uBot-5. I wonder how she'd feel. The attitudes of the patient and the family would be critical. Variability in the number and competency of nursing home staff, is an issue, at least in my experience. Would the use of robots diminish such variability?

"At their core, robots are not so very different from living things. “It’s all mechanistic,” Brooks said. “Humans are made up of biomolecules that interact according to the laws of physics and chemistry. We like to think we’re in control, but we’re not.” We are all, human and humanoid alike, whether made of flesh or of metal, basically just sociable machines."

Comment: Perhaps it is true that we are all "sociable machines" and that the distinction between human and humanoid is less evident than we think. Intellectually, I can get my arms around this observation. Emotionally, I'm not there yet.

1 comment:

Pete said...

Usually Blogs lack depth for serious learning. They are good for intellectual entertainment (in a good sense), announcements (again in good sense -- for example announcing some new ideas, new articles, new products), "general interests" reading. Not the case with your post though, really enjoyed it reading it and it held my attention all the way through!

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