Tools, Machines, Computers, and Robots.

A trip inside the mind of another.

"A computer computes, it crunches numbers. At its heart is just puts ones and zeros together in a logical manner.

A tool and a machine are similar. Typically we use them both to describe an object that assists in solving a physical problem. For a tool it is an object with few moving parts, while a machine has many.

Robots are the hybrids of machines and computers, but why are they what they are? What makes a robot a robot and not just a machine?

I think I am starting to realize why.

It is tied up in what frightens humans so much about robots. They are capable of doing what we do.

Well, what do we do? We are problem solvers. If there is some physical task of any kind that needs doing, involves much dexterity and flexibility, simply train a man to do it. No new machine is needed that must be created to do the task.

Example: We don't need a machine that distributes road cones. A man in the back of a pickup truck can do that job, quickly and easily. But when the cones are all out and we need a man to run chalk lines for a cutting crew, we can grab that same man and assign him to a new task.

Men can be modeled as a machine that can address an infinite number of needs.

The problem with robots (and their stationary brethren--computers) that makes them such a threat to us is that increasingly each one becomes capable of more and more tasks.

At the moment, there are two robots available from iRobot corp for floor cleaning. The Roomba vacuums, while the brand new Scooba does hardwood floors.

But someday a robot will be created that has a set of attachments it can choose through itself, and can recharge alone, and it will clean the floors in your home without prompting or maintenance. At that time, any attempt on your part to improve the cleanliness of your floors will be futile.

That is where the threat to mankind lies in robotics. Not smart machines that are capable of expertly performing a single task, but in resourceful and creative machines that could be put to any use we ask of them.

Computers have made this move slowly and gracefully, and we've allowed them. We've allowed them to supplant the publisher and the copy editor, sometimes the artist and the musician lose work to them. But when they began the technology was so behind the potential that we didn't realize how flexible the machines would one day become, and as they assimilated each new trick into their repertoire we allowed them to have more and more control because they were so useful!

Thus robots are percieved as a threat to us because now we can imagine that we see what in the last fifty years computers have done without any physical movement: become more and more capable of more and more tasks in a single unit. As robots approach the state of being machines capable of performing an infinite number of tasks, we run the risk of becoming obsolete!"

Technology is not a threat. But perhaps, just maybe. . . if you let yourself get inside the mind of a Luddite for long enough. . . flexible and creative machines could be.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


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