Friday, July 21, 2017

Hodgepodge 265/365 - Robots

I am not the greatest house cleaner. I tend to wait until the clutter and dust bunnies pass a certain threshold of bearability before I start sweeping tables and counters clean and haul out the hoover.

Fortunately, David has a lower threshold than I do when it comes to gritty floors (I just put on socks!)—or at least, he's less lazy than I am (that must be the case, because he doesn't wander around barefoot, now that I think of it)—and often takes care of the matter in a more timely fashion.

But still: what with the dog, who loves to track in dirt and sand and dried grasses, and the cats, who shed like there's no tomorrow, the floors tend to need tending to rather more often than even David manages.

So the other day, on hearing my friend Kim talk about her Roomba, Rosie, I broke down and ordered just such a "vacuum cleaning robot". It arrived yesterday, and today it—or rather, he: we've christened him Rudy—had his maiden voyage. (So to speak.)

I was fascinated as I followed the alternately charging (as in, "Chaaaaaarge!") and swiveling whirring black disk around the living room and kitchen. How does he make his decisions? What causes him to sometimes sit in one spot and simply spin (the blue light tells me he's encountered an especially dirty spot, but really? his definition of "dirt" seems pretty arbitrary).

I did have to rescue him from under the stove. At least, I think I did. He looked stuck. But that reminds me of a video I saw on Facebook the other day of a canoeist "rescuing" an osprey in a lake. That bird most likely did not need rescuing. Osprey fish for a living; sometimes they miss and end up in the water. It may take a bit of effort to fly off again, but it's not something they can't do. And meanwhile, the paddler got a nasty bite on her thumb, for her troubles. (Rudy did not bite me. He just made his little bugle call when I pressed his CLEAN button, and got back to work.)

Eventually I left him to his own devices, and when I noticed that he'd docked himself—done for the day—I emptied his filter, and yow! Is he ever a handy little dude for these parts: he was jam-packed with cat hair! He may not get it all, but he got plenty. I'm happy! I hope he is too: job well done!

His being called a "robot" got me wondering what the difference between a machine and a robot is. I found these comments online:
  • A "machine" is a mechanical apparatus used to perform a particular task (as opposed to a tool, which is just an apparatus, no serious moving parts involved).
  • A machine needs an operator; a robot doesn't. (Rudy does, at the moment, require me to press his CLEAN button, but if I choose to relinquish my authority over his existence, I can program him to clean on specific days at specific times and he'll just hop to it. For now, I think I prefer to remain his overlord.)
  • Most machines are not autonomous, meaning they can't make decisions or be left without assistance. Robots, by contrast, are autonomous and able to sense and respond to the environment in order to "make decisions." (Unless something gums up the works, as happened today when Rudy stumbled on a bra that had snuck under the bed. He choked. I resuscitated him. "That was not a dust bunny," he muttered, then bugled and got back to work.)
  •  A robot comprises four things: computer hardware, sensor software, a sensor array, and an effector array. "The control software, running on the computer, controls the various effectors (motors, relays, switches, actuators) based on its internal programming and input from the sensor array (microphones, EOPD devices, light/color sensors, sonar sensors, keyboard keys, etc)" (courtesy of Paul Reiber, LEGO robot fanatic).
The upshot is, robots are a subset of machines, able to function more or less autonomously. But they operate according to a code, outlined by Isaac Asimov in his "Three Laws of Robotics" (first stated in his 1942 short story "Runaround" and quoted as being from the Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2058 A.D.):
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. 
I'm sure these are all in Rudy's code of ethics. (They should be in everybody's code of ethics, robot or human. But sadly, robots seem to be better than humans in the ethical realm.)

Oh, and as a sidenote: the origin of the word robot? It's from a 1920 science fiction play by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek, R.U.R., standing for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots), though the "robots" in question were really more like clones, being flesh and blood. The play was immediately translated into English and so the word entered our language. (In Czech, robota means forced labor of the kind that serfs had to perform on their masters' lands; the word is derived from rab, meaning "slave.")

Anyway, I'm happy to have a robot in the house. And I hope the dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, microwave, coffeemaker, and digital clocks won't feel too humbled but will continue doing their work cheerfully as well—with a push of a button. (That's one reason I think I'll continue manual control of Rudy. That, and it'll remind me to pick up the floor to ease his way.)

But finally: The issue of robots taking paying jobs is a different, and serious, one. Here's a good recent overview of the potential inequities that could continue to be magnified as the wealthy/business owners come ever more to control the means of production. On the plus side, surgical robotics is making certain medical procedures more accurate and more affordable. Robots will be increasingly in evidence in our world. Let's just hope they—and their masters—continue to follow the three laws.

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