There is still much work to be done, but there is hope for humanity when it comes to events such as the nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and of more recent vintage, Fukushima, Japan. One hope is in the form of a robot named Centauro being developed in the U.K. Its 5 foot height and 205 pound weight isn’t much bigger than that of an average pallet. But its construction of aluminum and other compounds shielded by a 3D printed plastic makes it an ideal candidate for entering into hazardous zones caused by radioactive contamination.
Radioactive disasters tend to be a major public concern and catch the eye of the news camera for obvious reasons. Once the crisis abates, the media coverage subsides and the issue is largely relegated to the science and medical journals. Beneath the layers of the potential danger to the public are the individual scientists and engineers who often enter into the contaminated facilities, risking their own lives and long term health to prevent the larger public from being exposed to the dangers. It is here where the future of robots like Centauro have their future value.
Currently, Centauro has the ability to walk up and down stairs, step over crevices in the floor, pick up objects with its finger-shaped hands, open doors, and actually operate certain power tools. It has an artificial intelligence ability to do some things, such as maneuver around certain objects, but there is much work to be done in this area to make it a fully functional replacement for a human when responding to a nuclear crisis.
Take the more recent disaster in Fukushima. There was twisted metal on the floor, huge gaps in the floor that had to be hurdled, and most importantly, critical decisions that had to be made before proceeding to minimize the potential for the situation to become even more critical. The current model of Centauro requires a hand held remote to navigate the robot as it moves through a room via an operator controlled camera. So if the operator can’t see what’s ahead, a very real possibility in such a situation, then the robot could be lost and humans would have to be sent in to not only recover the expensive piece of technology, but return to square one and have humans risk their lives to solve the problems.
There are other companies that are pursuing technology along similar lines. Check out this video that shows clear advancements in both fluidity of motion and the ability of artificial intelligence to change the way we see the world:
Evolution needs to take place not only in the area of artificial intelligence but also in the construction of the robots themselves. For example, there must be adequate shielding from radiation that will prevent the robot from malfunction during its operation. While many of the robots in the video were able to maintain their balance, if the robot does fall down will its operation be affected by any dents or damage to its internal mechanisms. The same question can be applied to areas where temperatures are too high for humans to withstand.
One thing that is important to point out amid all these technological advancements is that the robots are being created with functionality as a priority, not the appearance of a human or to mimic human behavior. The simplest reason is that pursuing the humanity aspect of robots adds no practical value to the purpose of the design. AI advances can already been seen on mobile devices and the Internet (Siri) but Siri and other voice interfaces are created to be information servants, not personal companions. Investment in the production of AI physical robots will continue, but only as a means to an end. For those who are concerned that these types of robots will eventually “take over the world” there has to be a deliberate purpose by creators to program them to go down that path.
30 years from now we will look back and be asking ourselves only two questions. First, why did we go down this road in the first place? The alternative question will be, should we have gone down this road?