Phil and Stephen discuss how to outwit our would-be robot overlords. Dorky or not, head-mounted displays are on their way. New news in the bionic-arm-vs.-Luke-Skywalker arm race. And finally: what happens when we you feed graphene to spider?
Robots are mastering math, but hand-eye coordination continues to elude them
Robots may enslave us all someday. In the meantime, if one of them goes berserk, here’s a useful tactic: Shut the door behind you.
One after another, robots in a government-sponsored contest were stumped by an unlocked door that blocked their path at an outdoor obstacle course. One bipedal machine managed to wrap a claw around the door handle and open it but was flummoxed by a breeze that kept blowing the door shut before it could pass through.
Robots excel at many tasks, as long as they don’t involve too much hand-eye coordination or common sense. Like some gifted children, they can perform impressive feats of mental arithmetic but are profoundly klutzy on the playground.
This summer, Thunderfish, a 1,600-pound titanium underwater robotic vehicle reported it was swimming at 20 mph in Lake Ontario when, in fact, it was floating still. Its navigation sensors were confused by an interfering signal from a boat, says David Shea, the vice president of engineering for Kraken Robotics Inc., the Canadian company that developed Thunderfish.
“We talk a lot like they’re smart or intelligent,” Mr. Shea says, “but they’re not really.”
During Darpa’s Robotics Challenge, an obstacle-course competition that concluded in 2015, robots fell forwards, backward and sideways. One robot takes a spill after catching its foot in sand. Another shakes and jitters, arms out like Frankenstein’s monster, before it tumbles. One successfully exited a vehicle, but opening a door and walking through it was a problem for most.
But then again, some progress has been made since 2015
We are constantly shifting between the world in our hands and the physical world. Tens of thousands of people die every year because of this incredibly bad form factor, and the need to change it is urgent. It took 15 years to dig this hole, and it will take 15 years to dig out, but when we do, it’s going to be a very different world because augmentation is happening at many other levels, AI, the blockchain, cloud computing, are also rapidly changing computing. And then there are the unintended consequences of our greatest inventions, like Facebook, which may better connect us, but also make us less free.
“A head-mounted display would be just a waypoint, as we will continue to evolve beyond it on our march toward human-machine integration,” Maes told me in a recent email.
The goal is to get this information into the brain. Right now, the eyes and the ears are the only ways into the brain. “Computing interfaces will become more and more invisible to the user/wearer” says Will Schumaker, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University whose focus is optics. “But going beyond HMDs will be tricky and require quantum leaps in optics or biotech, which might take some time.”
For the study, Nicola Pugno and team at the University of Trento in Italy added graphene and carbon nanotubes to a spider’s drinking water. The materials were naturally incorporated into the spider’s silk, producing webbing that is five times stronger than normal. That puts it on par with pure carbon fibers in strength, as well as with Kevlar, the material bulletproof vests are made from.
“When I went to grab something, I could feel myself grabbing it. When I thought about moving this or that finger, it would move almost right away,” Keven Walgamott said. “I don’t know how to describe it except that it was like I had a hand again.”
Walgamott was describing the results of an experimental surgery to The Washington Post, where a prosthetic known as the “Luke” arm had been attached with electrodes implanted into his nerves. The real estate agent had lost his hand and most of his arm in an electrical accident 14 years ago, and he volunteered for the program at the University of Utah.
Plus — was it an alien spacecraft? (Timothy Gordon says yes!)