March 2004
2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Carnegie Mellon University's converted Humvee "Sandstorm" managed to travel 7.4 miles before snapping an axle during the race.

Editorial License - Robot Racers, Spacers, Dogs and Frogs
Why we love bots, despite Hollywood's best efforts.
by Ernest Lilley

It's been a good month for robots, all things considered.
True, DARPA's desert robot race ended after only a few of the 210 miles of the course, but you've got to start somewhere, and there's much to be said for making it 7.5 miles through obstacles including barbed wire, concrete, arroyos and just plain desert. It succeeded in bringing out new contenders in robot and AI design in the best tradition of garage innovation. There were college students and lone wolf engineers competing next to Intel sponsored teams and if nobody actually won, everybody learned something, and there's always next time.

The course was brutal, and contestants didn't even know the route until a mere two hours before the start. Tough odds to beat, especially when you consider that DARPA's military industrial complex research contractors haven't been able to make a machine that could do it either. Thinking outside the box and designing on a shoestring is a time honored tradition; SF authors have been asked to brainstorm about Faster Than Light drives, there's an "X" prize for a civilian spaceship, and Lindberg designed the Spirit of St. Louis in a public library.

We'll just have to wait until 2006 to see if the lessons taught this weekend pay off.

Meanwhile, on the Red Planet, roving robots roll along at a much more sedate pace, stopping every few inches to confer with ground control. Robots with names that inspire images of courageous little machines trekking across the Martian desert. Spirit. Opportunity. Beagle. Ok, I think they could have done better than Opportunity, and Beagle never actually barked...but I'm often intrigued by how easy it is to get caught up in the plight of these machines..

One of the arguments for sending humans into space has been that without a human presence on missions, nobody could get excited about them. To me, the reverse has often seemed true. Astronauts generally come across as dehumanized by the requirements of a) the complexity of space travel b) the deadly seriousness of their job and c) the pseudo-military environment they report to. Who came across as more human in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the human crew or the inhuman AI?

When a probe fails to deploy an antenna or gets stuck in a program loop, we don't just feel bad for the engineers...we feel bad for the robot. Why? For the same reason we get attached to dogs. They pay attention to us and do what we tell them to, as well as they can, and besides, we're responsible for them. Someday robots may evolve beyond us, in fact they almost certainly will, though what evolve means is up for grabs, but today the most sophisticated robots we can even imagine look to us for guidance.

Even the "bad" robots. Agent Smith in the Matrix wants Neo to give his life meaning. Even though HAL killed almost everyone in the Discovery's crew we find ourselves feeling bad for him...because we recognize that humans failed in their stewardship. And the "good" robots are easily the characters we find ourselves worrying about even though their human counterparts are flesh and blood like us. In the last Star Trek movie Data sacrifices himself to save Picard. Typically robotic, but I'll miss Data more than I would have missed Jean Luc.

We like robots because we feel responsible for them and because they are responsive in turn. It's not a bad deal for either of us, because it's that feeling of stewardship makes us rise to the occasion and strive to do well by our charges. It's irrelevant that our charges are just collections of metal and plastic, because that's not how we feel about them.

I'm generally of the opinion that we're just collections of carbon and hydrogen, when it comes down to it, but I'm comfortable with the notion that we count for something anyway. Someday our robo-progeny might count for something too. I hope that when they do what we feel for them isn't fear, but pride.

The DARPA competition was a step in the right direction. Instead of robo-warriors trying to hack each other to pieces, we tried to make something clever and useful. The civilian applications of autonomous vehicles are real and overdue, and I don't see why we have to wait for 2006 or depend on the government for more competitions like this. I'd like to see the Discovery Channel, or even the Sci-Fi channel, sponsor a series about a similar competition, but using smaller bots and smaller courses. Instead of building the brain into the bot, I'd suggest that personal computers running wi-fi links would offer a simpler way for experimenters.

Regardless who runs it, I'm looking forward to more robot races. Gentlepersons...start your robots!

Ernest Lilley - Editor, SFRevu

(Oh, in case you were wondering, there really are robot frogs.)

2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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