When I’m reincarnated, I want to come back as a robot. Being a human again, or a poodle, or a goldfish, will seem so sadly biological. Robots, on the other hand, will have all the fun — at the very least, juggling a dozen balls, seeing around corners and walking up walls on sticky feet — if you believe the picture of the world offered by Illah Reza Nourbakhsh in his new book, “Robot Futures.”
I got the sense that Nourbakhsh, though apparently still human, has gone over to the robot side. Indeed, he has fathered quite a few, including a seven-foot-tall tour guide for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and a super pogo stick that rockets riders ridicuously high into the air. He has developed three-dimensional robotic vision and devised a navigational strategy that helps robots wander indoors without getting lost. Nourbakhsh, who heads a lab at Carnegie Mellon devoted to advancing human-robot interaction, gave us a hint of where the world is heading as co-author of an earlier book, “Introduction to Autonomous Mobile Robots.”
(The MIT Press) - \"Robot Futures\" by Illah Reza Nourbakhsh.
In “Robot Futures,” he reveals the social forces and technology propelling us toward a robotic-enhanced life and turns a sensitive eye on the complex human issues that lie ahead. Robots will make ever-larger leaps past their blood-and-guts parents; their connection to the Internet will pack them with information no mortal can contain, and their minds will make independent decisions thanks to artificial intelligence. They will see us, hear us and respond to us; they will recognize a face, understand a firm handshake and perceive our smiles. But their presence in our offices, factories and homes, in stores and on sidewalks, will force humans to confront a difficult era of adaptation. “We have invented a new species,” Nourbakhsh writes, “and the question that remains is, how will we share our world with these new creatures, and how will this new ecology change who we are and how we act?”
Defining a robot, however, is tricky. Certainly not all of them reflect the humanoid shape of C3PO in “Star Wars.” They can be designed as a mundane-looking camera eye or a snake for military surveillance. Perhaps a better way to understand their essence is to zero in on what they can do — the scope is mind-boggling and sometimes disquieting. Nourbakhsh stresses that robots form a kind of bridge between the digital universe and the physical world in a way humans simply can’t. He points to a tiny, flying robot that finds an open window in a building, slips inside, maps the interior and instantly publishes the maps online.
The evolving intelligence of robots is linked to three key advances: Robots are gaining the ability to perceive their environment, make internal decisions and then take action. Consider the case of a local fast-food restaurant. Suppose you’re a regular customer who almost always orders the same sandwich and fries. When you pull into the parking lot, the store-bot will recognize you and send an order to the cook, and by the time you reach the counter, your food will be waiting. This robot already exists. Called Hyperactive Bob, it went into action five years ago, capturing customer data through a computer vision system tied to cameras around the restaurant’s perimeter. It’s true that such efficiency benefits the customer and the restaurant. “Even privacy advocates have trouble finding fault with Bob,” Nourbakhsh writes. “The computer system is only recognizing a car and making a guess about what the car’s occupants will order.”