Friday, March 5, 2010

21st century robots break Asimov's first law every day

As a child I remember enjoying science fiction books, movies and TV shows in which robots with human-like characteristics performed numerous tasks that had previously been the domain of workers.

One of the most memorable TV series was The Jetsons, in which the maid was a mechanical robot who took care of the housework and the children. But that particular vision of the future was conjured up way back in the 1960s and today, more than 40 years later, there are no humanoid robots to be seen in any modern home.

In fact, apart from on factory production lines and as an amusing toy, there are no really impressive robots to be seen anywhere. The whole idea of replacing people with general-purpose machines seems to have delivered little fruit.

However, in the USA, robotic "people replacements" may be about to take a huge step forwards.

According to recent reports, the latest crop of jet fighters (the F22 Raptor) and those currently under development, including the F35, have just become too expensive to justify.

Some of the many reasons for massive cost over-runs involve the provision of systems to support the fragile human pilot that controls the plane. Unlike the airframe, its weapons, engines and avionics, the pilot is vulnerable to all manner of things such as excessive G-forces, sudden decompression, cold, etc and high on the designers list of expensive, performance-limiting factors are those mechanisms which maximise the survivability of the aircraft's occupant at all times.

With this in mind, and the stunning success of both unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) in hostile environments, the military is now faced with a crucial decision...

Do they continue to develop expensive manned fighters or do they instead, invest that money in the creation of a new generation of pilotless craft that are cheaper and offer higher performance?

If they opt for the UAV/RPV choice, this will be a major milestone in the evolution of robotic technology.

Although they won't look like the robot out of Lost in Space, these autonomous and remotely piloted fighters will represent the pinnacle of robotic technology as we know it.

In order to deliver the required performance in a combat environment, these aircraft will have to process huge amounts of data in realtime and make crucial decisions that then become a complex series of commands designed to give them air superiority over any foe.

Military officials are banking on the fact that a robotic fighter will be able to turn faster, accelerate more quickly, climb higher and endure far greater stresses than any manned version. In theory, should there be a man versus machine face-off, the machine should have huge advantages over the "winged can of meat".

However, it's early days and to date, none of the UAVs or RPVs in use today have been designed to operate in an aerial combat capacity. Although there are numerous instances where UAVs have shot down other aircraft, there has yet to be (as far as we know) an unmanned craft capable of engaging in a dogfight and winning.

Of course those familiar with science fiction will soon realise that UAVs may not qualify as robots, simply because they break Asimov's first law of robotics:

"A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."

I wonder if it's a sign of the times that the most advanced robots of the 21st century now take the form of killing machines?

I bet Asimov is turning in his grave.

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