…a robot??? Well, that’s not quite what today’s roboticists had in mind, but something much simpler: teaching them to do what humans do.

The PR2 robot, made by Menlo Park, CA-based Willow Garage Robotics, play-fights in the National Geographic courtyard in Washington, D.C.

You’re probably thinking, “Uh oh… we could realize robotic warfare?” To be honest, I thought the same thing at first, especially after this National Geographic article pointed out that a few robots built today could learn from demonstration (LfD). This simply means that we as humans teach the robot a simple task like pouring a cup of coffee by guiding its limbs through the motions. Hence, we program robots in a different manner — one which requires only patience without the need to apply specialized knowledge.

The fact that this new method is just another method of programming does not do enough to ameliorate our fighting fears, and Brown University roboticist Chad Jenkins agrees. Given the ethical debate surrounding weaponized drones, it is a concern that is fresh on his mind: “You want to be able to say, ‘If you use the technology this way, then you’ve crossed a line that’s not appropriate,’…I worry that the way wars might be fought is the way that we might play a game of StarCraft.”

However, he asserts that robots haven’t necessarily evolved beyond the point of pure obedience yet. They are still bound to follow the orders we give them, and nothing else (aside from the Three Laws of Robotics, of course). And, apart from the prospect of robots taking over quite a few mechanical jobs long held by humans, they can’t accomplish unstructured tasks nearly as well as humans can. They can’t adapt to most sudden changes in any given environment or situation beyond those of the physical kind. By extension, they cannot improvise when conventional methods of problem solving are suppressed by some external factor.

It is assumed that, as robotics continues on the path to the mass production of complex robots like ASIMO, LfD will enable more people to transfer their mundane tasks to such mechanized helpers. An interesting idea, though, is the potential establishment of a “robot app store”, where independent developers could design unique functions for robots fitting into such a scheme.

Let’s all hope that one of them doesn’t involve transformation into a Dalek…




Photo credit: Jason Kurtis, National Geographic