The Future for Robotics (1)

There is a wave of excitement about the very real future of robotics, which is coming very soon. I’m posting some of the zeitgeist here.

from Wired Magazine.

Paul Saffo

A longtime technology forecaster, Saffo is a managing director at the Silicon Valley investment research firm Discern. Formerly the director of the Institute for the Future, he is also a consulting professor in Stanford University’s engineering department.

The second indicator is an inversion, where you see something that’s out of place. When the Mexican police captured the head of a drug cartel, in the photos the perpetrators were looking proudly at the camera while the cops were wearing ski masks. Usually it’s the reverse. To me that was an indicator that Mexico was very far from winning its war against the cartels.There are four indicators I look for: contradictions, inversions, oddities, and coincidences. In 2007 stock prices and gold prices were both soaring. Usually you don’t see those prices high at the same time. When you see a contradiction like that, it means more fundamental change is ahead.

Then there are oddities. When the Roomba robot vacuum was introduced in 2002, all the engineers I know were very excited, and I don’t recall them owning vacuums. I said, this is damn strange. This is not about cleaning floors, this is about scratching some kind of itch. It’s about something happening with robots.

Finally, there are coincidences. At the fourth Darpa Grand Challenge in 2007, a bunch of robots successfully drove in a simulated suburb. The same day, there was a 118-car pileup on a California highway. We had robots that understand the California vehicle code better than humans, and a bunch of humans crashing into each other. That said to me, really, people shouldn’t drive.

Creativity And Robotics

This CNN article featuring Heather Knight and Data gives a good perspective on the different meanings of creativity, perception and processing at the intersection of human and machine. I would like to see more about how Data (or other robots) perceive and react but I guess that’s too much hard thought for popular write ups… unless someone like Heather has already converted robot expression into a ‘quirky’ human form.

Data, Heather Knight’s Nao robot, is a stand up comic, if you weren’t already familiar with their work from films, Ted talks, live performances, conferences.

Roboticist sees improvisation through machine’s eyes –

Camel Racing Reconfigures Robot Relations

In 2004, Qatar banned the use of child jockeys in camel races. These child jockeys were not young ‘adults’ of 12 or 14, but enslaved 4 or 6yr olds from Sudan. Wired has written about the rise of robotic technology replacing human jockeys; and the end result, that all child jockeys were summarily shipped back to Sudan, without a penny.

Cast your eye over the background of the photo. For every camel carrying a robot, there is a car full of men carrying remote controls and cameras, racing alongside the track. Where is the real action?

The story for me lies in the reconfigured relations, who is doing the work, and where the value lies. The horse was feminized and fetishized as it lost work value. So were the horse’s attendants. I pity the poor camel.

Robots Racing Camels

Camel jockeys were replaced by mechanical robots since 2005 due to international pressure because camel owners were found to be involved in human trafficking, buying children from countries like Pakistan and India for their smaller frame and lighter weight to ride on the camels. Since the ban on human jockeys, owners have continued to race their camels, controlling the whip with their remotes as they follow the race trackside in their jeeps. – Yahoo! News

Photos by Mink (above) and Lars Plougman (below)

The shuffling of man and machine continues. Driving alongside the track are camera trucks – flat beds with a person holding a camera – as well as cars operating the remote robot controls. I don’t think automating the jockeys would be as hard as automating the closeup camera work. Whenever something is automated, someone gets moved into the maintenance position though.

RoboTigers and human-robot relations

artist/engineer Kezanti from Brugge (tbc)

The Bloggess isn’t my usual source for robotics writing, so I was overjoyed to read today’s yesterday’s post about Robot Tigers. It’s a sublime demonstration of all the contradictory and confusing human-robot relations that exist, in reality and in fantasy. Don’t make me spell it out. Enjoy.

Victor:  One day I’m going to finish my robot tigers and we will rule the world.

me: It’d be easier if you just took over the world with real tigers.

Victor:  Robot tigers are scarier than real tigers.

me:  No.  Real tigers are scarier because they’re unpredictable.

Victor: My robot tigers have a random setting.

me: Like a shuffle function on an iPod?

Victor: Exactly.

me:  That is way scarier.

Victor: Plus they could beat you at chess.

me: Well, not me specifically.  I’m pretty damn good at chess.

Victor:  Not as good as a robot tiger.

me:  Live tigers are still scarier because they’re real and you know they hate you. With a robot tiger you understand they’re just doing their job when they kill you.

Victor: My robot tiger would be a cold, calculating killing machine – set on random – that also has an emotion chip and laughs at your pain.

me: That actually sounds scary as shit.


Robotics as a Platform

(image via Hiller Aviation Museum of Charles Zimmerman’s kinesthetically controlled flying platform)

Or is robotics multiple platforms? And when is it an infrastructure? Are platforms media and vice versa? This is what I think about late at night. Weird eh? In the computing world, a platform is a place to launch software – some sort of hardware architecture with a software framework or interface (from wikipedia). Or as O’Reilly put it, ‘A platform beats an application every time’.

So a platform is a structure on an infrastructure – this can become recursive. A good platform solves a problem so well that everyone else will use it for their own purposes rather than waste energy creating their own solution. A good platform is open to being used. It affords more applications.

While robotics is the most interesting post-computer platform (and also a media), it will change the definition of platform. Not for the first time. Computers followed cars. Cars were a pervasive technology that had a form and use for just about everyone. Cars (buses/trucks) all look pretty similar and work the same. They do the same thing for everyone. Transport them. But the car afforded such a range of individual uses that the world was completely changed.

Many argue that the computer is the first multipurpose media/platform but I think that a closer examination shows that automobiles made possible a huge range of applications that had never previously existed. Architectural and business changes are well known but I’m also considering social changes like recreational sport leagues, vacations, suburbs, etc.

Still, a car is a car and a computer is able to imitate many things in one box. What is a robot? A computer in a new box? Robotics is much more than that but it is neither as popular as a car nor as versatile as a computer. Yet.

In the future, I see robotics as a platform swarm. An assemblage of variously shaped platforms, none ubiquitous or multipurpose but all together, the most powerful new media/platform(s). So the nature of a robotics platform is that one platform is insufficient, many platforms working together are needed. The robot body is not single but multiple and distributed. The robotics platform is connected by communication, not cells or scaffolding or code.

Cultural & critical studies have recently been examining the nature of platforms – in Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort’s MIT series ‘Platform Studies’ which draws together the technical and aesthetic.

Platform Studies investigates the relationships between the hardware and software design of computing systems and the creative works produced on those systems. (‘Platform Studies’)

What is a platform? was the subject of the May 2011 Platform Politics conference in Cambridge, which addressed the changing nature of platforms and how to theoretically address this. The conference included a range of platform discussions, including Chris Chesher’s paper on Robotics as a Platform.  Jussi Parikka’s opening address outlines the areas of  interest as;

  • the politics of new network clusters, services and platforms
  • the biopolitics of platforms, ie. the cognitive and affective capital (or links between work and free time, of play and labour, the circulation of affects, sociability, and so forth)
  • the form of theoretical study, and the impact of technology on epistemology
  • and finally, the question of politics of the imperceptible:

“what kinds of forms of politics there are out there that are not even recognized as politics? From artistic practices to the grey work of engineers, new arenas of expertise, skill and again, social action contribute to the way in which politics is fleeing from traditional institutions.” (from Jussi Parikka’s opening words)