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Posted: July 29, 2011 12:00 a.m.

Look out for robots

Think about it: Do you ever go through your days or weeks responding to situations or to the people in your life as if you were a robot? My answer, regrettably, would be "yes." I'm definitely not a pilot, but you could call me an "autopilot." My responses, decisions and actions often derive from instinct or intuition, habit, cues from the people with whom I come in contact or commonly perceived expectations in certain situations.

Could it be that built-in responses that don't take a lot of thinking or analysis let us focus more keenly on bigger and more important issues? Maybe, but then what's the difference between robots and us?

Laugh tracks in sitcoms cue us when to laugh, and we'll laugh or at least snicker. Peer pressure - and not just the kind that pre-teens and tweens experience - motivate certain actions and decisions. It's called "keeping up with the Joneses." The family next door gets a flat screen 54-inch television, and his neighbor aims for a bigger one and will leave the box on the curb just to prove it. A fashionista may declare that plaids are just the thing for the upcoming season, and some of us will go out and buy plaid anything, even if it makes us look as big as a house. The cosmetics industry may declare that a brilliant red lipstick belongs in every woman's purse, and some will comply but in complete denial that red, red lipstick only shows up yellowing teeth. Fast food companies and drug manufacturers have capitalized very successfully on our mindless response to repetitive advertising pitches.

Even worse, in my book, is when candidates for political office are subject to demands to sign certain pledges in order to curry support without ever thinking that those pledges will one day limit their ability to make educated and informed decisions on increasingly complex issues. One-dimensional promises offer no sure guide for governing effectively.

Now comes the August issue of National Geographic Magazine to tell us that scientists are close to creating robots that think, feel, act, reason and respond like human beings. Maybe they'll be able to teach us something! Surely the researchers at places like Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, a hotbed for robotic development, are learning something themselves as they try to diagram and dissect every human activity and emotion while trying to "teach" robots to respond similarly to the situations human beings face daily.

The day is foreseen when robots will be able to cook, fold laundry, babysit or assist with elder care when directed by a human being on a computer even some distance away. Reid Simmons, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon, is quoted as saying, "In five or ten years, robots will routinely be functioning in human environments."

We've already accrued good history on the effectiveness of robots on assembly lines or other manufacturing environments, but obviously displacing many, many manufacturing jobs and the people who used to hold them. (On the subject, Ted Turner has famously quoted his dad whose mantra was to employ as many people as possible - profitably. Ultimately in Ted's business, robotic cameras would replace many human camera operators.)

Robotic research is proceeding in diverse directions, according to National Geographic. Colleagues at Vanderbilt University created a robotic system that would play a rudimentary ball game with autistic children. The robot is able to monitor a child's physiological clues and determine when the child is becoming bored or aggravated. It then is able to alter the game in subtle ways until the child expresses pleasure again.

The Home Exploring Robotic Butler, or HERB, is also in "training" at the school and working toward the day "he" might be able to assist with the elderly. He has pressure-sensitive cables that work like human tendons to enable him to support someone needing assistance. He's learned how to pick up different forms of beverages, sensing the difference between, say, juice boxes and coffee cups. What he is not so good at yet is being able to navigate among people. When he can't figure his way through a crowded space, he simply remains in place and honks his horn.

Georgia Tech's Ronald Arkin is cited as being the researcher who's made the most progress in designing robots with ethical dimensions so that they might one day be, in a sense, "safer" in battle than humans. Perhaps it's anger, frustration or fear that has motivated some combat soldiers to take aim at and kill civilians, but robots wouldn't be dealing with those sorts of emotions, Arkin believes. "In short, they might make better ethical decisions than people," writer Chris Carroll suggests.

As for me, even a Roomba, the roving vacuum cleaner, is a little too creepy to comprehend.


Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.

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