Kiss My Robot

Except for the isolation brought about by the current viral pandemic, the increasing loneliness in our culture may be due to robotics – the intersection of science, engineering, and technology that produces robots, machines that substitute for (or replicate) human actions. While I am writing this, a robot is cleaning my floor. No human is around with whom to chat. When my ice maker wouldn’t make ice a robot directed me to a technician who knew about the mechanics of my particular machine. The same on-call service can now provide me with a lawyer, accountant, tutor, or many other professionals without them being present in my home. The fix is quick and far less expensive than a house call – if you can follow the directions they give you.

Should you need medical attention, you don’t have to wait in a waiting room. You can sit on your own bed while a doctor examines you virtually – without touching you. Many cultures believe that touching, the laying on of hands, is healing. Indeed, it has been reported infants and elderly who are not touched by other humans do not thrive. Robotics, however,  can be frustrating. Are you agitated when a robot shifts you from one voice message to another when you are seeking to contact someone?  Human assistants or managers are increasingly harder to find.  Robotics provides convenience but what is the human cost? They cannot as yet elicit a human physiological response. Kiss a robot today and you probably just taste metal. But tomorrow? 

Researchers are creating robots that can think. Dr. Ashwin Dani, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and his group at the University of Connecticut are working with a robot whose “screen eyes” watch the movements of humans as they select tools to build a drawer. The robot catalogs the selections with an internal processor. There may be ten steps to follow to build the drawer but after two or three steps, the robot continues on its own.  At this point, Dr. Dani says the robot is thinking, Furthermore, the robot can do in minutes what it would take engineers days to accomplish.  

Researchers at the University of Tokyo, on the other hand, are working on a brand new robotics field, Physical Reservoir Computing.  PRC involves the interaction between machines and living cells. By electronically stimulating a cache of brain cells the Japanese can now make the robot go through a maze. These findings suggest goal-directed behavior can be generated without any additional learning.

Will thinking robotics replace even more humans in our lives? I remember the first time I thought about it. I used to visit a newspaper store that had nationwide and European newspapers so I could check my syndicated column. First, the vendor disappeared, then the store, and finally the newspapers.  The information has just taken a different form: instead of on paper, it appears on a phone or PC screen. Robotics will undoubtedly replace more people in our lives. What is your solution to the loneliness and job loss they will cause? 

Editor’s note: the information on robotics is gleaned from the publications of the American Institute  of Physics:

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