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Science Behind the Fiction: Robot dogs and scary-real humans are coming

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Aug 15, 2018, 1:56 PM EDT (Updated)

We've had an uncomfortable relationship with our artificial counterparts from the moment of conception. The concept of robots dates back to ancient times. The Greeks told tales of the god Hephaestus making himself mechanical lackies constructed off bronze and gold. The word 'robot' is credited to the 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) by Czech play-write, Karel Čapek.

In his play, Čapek tells the tale of a class of artificial automatons made not of machines but a newly discovered chemical. These robots are forced into slave labor and, as expected, don't take too kindly to it. They rise up and kill their creators.

All of this was an allegory for political machinations going on at the time and Čapek's play wasn't well received by those it set out to criticize, so much so that he was named public enemy number two by the Gestapo. Čapek evaded Hitler's forces, just barely, up until his death from the flu in 1938.

Despite almost a century of elapsed time, the popular narrative of humans and robots at odds with one another persists. And it's easy to see why.

The robots of modern fiction are uniquely human, yet better than us in every conceivable way. They also have the unique position of being one fictional entity on the verge of becoming real. Unlike the zombie, the vampire, or the malevolent alien species, the intelligent robot is almost assuredly on its way. There is even cause to argue they've already arrived, though still in their infancy. We're all afraid of being replaced.

Still, we can't seem to help ourselves bringing this prophecy to fruition. Every advance in computing and manufacturing technology lifts the lid of Pandora's box open a little further

Perhaps its the knowledge of their imminent arrival that's caused some scientists and thinkers to take steps to ensure a smooth transition and a peaceful symbiotic relationship between humans and our mechanical creations. This mode of thinking has even begun to reflect in the stories we tell.

Michael Bay's Transformers franchise is perhaps the most well-known story involving benevolent robots but it isn't alone. Short Circuit, Big Hero 6, and WALL-E are just a few popular films over the last few decades exploring what might be accomplished when humans and robots work together for good.

As of this month, those films will be joined by the Oliver Daly directed film, A.X.L., the story of a boy and his dog, which is actually a government-funded military robot.

Miles Hill (Alex Neustaedter) encounters A-X-L (pronounced Axel) in the desert after an experiment gone wrong. The two of them bond, literally, via technological and emotional pairing and the two of them fight against all odds to protect their new found relationship.

A.X.L. is being marketed as a family adventure film, an unusual take in the realm of human and robotic encounters. But perhaps that's precisely what we need. If robotics is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it seems to be, it might be in our best interest to shift the narrative.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the state of robotics and find out just how terrified we should be.

Early Robots

It's important for us to understand what separates a robot from other machines. While the definition has never been entirely nailed down, most roboticists agree that a robot must have some intelligence. It must be able to perceive and interact with its environment. In short, the remote control robots you likely had as a child weren't robots at all. A robot must be able to work autonomously, to some degree, without real-time input from a human operator.

The first of what might be considered true robots were constructed in the late fifties by car companies looking to automate construction. In 1959, the first "Unimate" robot was installed on an assembly line at General Motors in Trenton, New Jersey. It was designed to complete tasks, in the manufacturing of cars, deemed dangerous for human beings.

Shortly thereafter, the Stanford Research Institute created "Shakey" a mobile robot with the ability to plan, find routes, and manipulate objects. In 1970 Life Magazine referred to Shakey as the first electronic person.

Early robots didn't resemble human beings or any recognizable life form. Instead, they were most often arms designed to complete specific tasks. It wasn't until 1970 that the first humanoid robot came to be.

WABOT 1, designed by Ichiro Kato, had a vaguely human body and was capable of limb control, vision, communication and was able to measure distance, direction, and transport objects. While WABOT 1 had a mostly human shape, it lacked the sorts of features that made it endearing to a human acquaintance. Still, it ushered in the age of modern robots the likes of which would be familiar to fans Isaac Asimov.

Modern Robots

Perhaps the first really famous humanoid robot was ASIMO. Built by Honda in 2000, it smoothed out the rough edges seen in earlier humanoids and offered something that, while not quite human, felt welcoming and vaguely, for lack of a better word, cute.

Despite being a forerunner in public robotics, ASIMO has been criticized as being little more than a marketing stunt to sell cars and other Honda products. While that may be the case, it's difficult to minimize what ASIMO did in terms of bringing humanoid robots into the public consciousness. And sadly, after eighteen years and seven generations, ASIMO has reached its end. Honda announced earlier this year that the adorable automaton is being retired.

Luckily, where ASIMO and Honda left off, other companies have picked up. And few companies have done more in terms of developing impressive robots and popularizing their use than Boston Dynamics.

Founded in 1992 as a part of MIT, Boston Dynamics has become the leading name in modern robotics. As of December 2013, Boston Dynamics was acquired by Google and continues their efforts to advance the field. Over the last two and a half decades, the team at Boston Dynamics has built a number of impressive robots modeled after humans and animals.

Created in 2005, BigDog brought the company into the public eye. The quadrupedal robot, with its vaguely dog-like design, was funded by DARPA with the goal of assisting soldiers in the field by trucking supplies over uneven terrain where traditional vehicles couldn't tread, capable of carrying 340 pounds at four miles per hour.

The below video shows BigDog trucking up steep, forested terrain while carrying a load, pushing through snowy embankments, enduring fierce kicks and icy blacktop all without losing its footing.

Boston Dynamics has a whole slate of robots designed to accomplish specific tasks. There's Cheetah, capable of running at 28 miles per hour, RiSE with its micro-claws which enable it to cling to surfaces and climb vertical surfaces, SandFlea which can jump upward of 30 feet straight up, and Atlas a six-foot, back-flipping, humanoid. And that's just a few of the machines the team at Google and BD has cooked up.

Technology has finally begun to catch up to the imaginings of our best fiction, all that's left is to imbue these mechanical marvels with incredible intelligence.

Robot Intelligence

It's clear from advancements in robotics over the last few decades that our machine counterparts are becoming more and more lifelike in their physical capabilities. What's less clear is what's going on inside them.

All of our most interesting fiction presents a world wherein robots are not just functionally complete but mentally competent. It's here that modern robots fall behind. The robots of Boston Dynamics are capable of doing backflips, running at incredible speeds, and staying upright despite incredibly unfriendly terrain. These are feats that put them physically above the average human being, but in the arena of the mind, they just can't hold up.

Artificial intelligence is still a burgeoning field. One that has experienced its own set of advancements over the last several years. Where before, AI was a dream that only existed in the realm of fiction, now most of us carry a rudimentary version in our pockets. It's likely that you've engaged with an artificial intelligence on your mobile device recently. Uttering the words "Hey Google" or "Hey Siri" opens a conversation with a non-human intelligence. And while the response might seem articulate, there's no awareness behind it.

Perhaps the most famous artificial intelligence to date is that of Sophia, an embodied AI created by Hanson Robotics. Sophia has become something of a celebrity of late after she was granted citizenship status by the Saudi Arabian government, making her the first artificial entity to be granted rights (though Hanson Robotics is still awaiting documentation outlining precisely what that means).

Despite a particularly successful media campaign, Sophia isn't as intelligent as the leaders at Hanson would lead you to believe.

In reality, she's little more than a moderately successful chat bot plugged into a humanoid skin.

Videos of Sophia online show her having what appear to be real-time conversations with people and offering responses that seem almost human, aside from the occasional contradiction or confusing response.

All of this, in truth, is a sophisticated routine meant to convince the public that Sophia's intelligence is greater than it actually is.

That isn't to say that the underlying technology isn't impressive in its own right, but David Hanson, CEO of Hanson Robotics has been less than transparent about her abilities.

In truth, our best A.I.s can learn specific tasks and can even respond to conversation in ways that seem intelligent but have no underlying understanding of what they are doing or saying.

The fact is that we hardly understand the way our own minds work and, as such, have been incapable of translating true learning and awareness to even our most advanced programs and machines.

Robotics and computer learning improve every day and continue to do so at an increasingly impressive rate, but for now, our best robots are incapable of being our most feared enemies or loving friends.

What the future of robotics and A.I. holds remains to be seen. In the meantime, A.X.L. can be seen in theaters on August 24.

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