Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Robots with feeling

In an article in PCWorld an artificial 'E-skin' is described that may soon help robots feel. It can also be used to make prosthetic limbs with feeling abilities. The skin consists of semiconductor nanowires and works with low voltages. It can detect pressures low enough to be able to wash your precious China cups.

This is science fiction coming to life. Finally all those Asimov robots can become reality. Although Philip K. Dick's 'Do androids dream of electric sheep' (basis for the film 'Blade runner') paints a much darker future of course.

So robots will be able to feel in the near future. Or at least in one sense. In the other sense, the sense of feeling emotion, they are still wholly lacking. For how long though? It seems there is a drive towards trying to recreate life. Mary Shelley proved to be more than a little prescient when she wrote 'Frankenstein'. Mankind is trying very hard to recreate a being that can be called living. We have mechanical devices taking over heavy labour, building the objects that we crave. And robotic research is constantly striving to construct robots that are ever more self sufficient. Artificial Intelligence seems to be the hardest stumbling block but there is little doubt that with the advances in computer processor power and ever smarter algorithms a thinking computer is only decades away. If that.

And yet, and yet... Will we allow robots to become our overlords? Will robots want to be our overlords? Science fiction is full of stories that paint a dark future. I even write them myself. But is that picture a true one?

For a dark future ruled by malicious robots to come true we will have to create robots that either have no feeling and act purely on logic principles or robots that have actively malicious intend towards us. So as long as roboticists have read the Robot series by Asimov to learn the Three Laws of Robotics and have read 'Do androids dream of electric sheep' for the warning it contains, we may be safe. The only thing we need then is enough compassion and tolerance to accept our new earth-citizens. In that regard it may be that the greater problem lies with us, not with the robots.

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