I, Robot Owner

We're used to robots -- in their place. Think of a car factory; the image that comes to mind is probably not the assembly line of yore, but instead pivoting robot arms doing mind-numbingly repetitive tasks with great precision. But other than vacuum cleaners and the odd robotic pet, robots are mostly absent from our daily lives. Are we ready for that to change, with robots sharing our highways and homes? We'd better be, because they're coming.

On May 7, Nevada became the first state to issue a license for self-driven cars. These Google-developed cars are also known as autonomous vehicles, but make no mistake: They are robots.

The Google robot cars drive themselves using an onboard computer, cameras and a Velodyne 64-beam laser range finder mounted on the roof. This constantly creates a detailed 3D map of the environment. The car then combines its "vision" of its surroundings with GPS data to drive itself while avoiding obstacles and respecting traffic laws.

Why does Google think we need robot cars? As Jay Nancarrow, a Google spokesperson, explained, "Over 1.2 million people are killed in traffic worldwide every year, and we think autonomous technology can significantly reduce that number."

We all think we're good drivers. Just about every American guy is convinced he could show NASCAR drivers a thing or two. But the reality is we're pretty awful behind the wheel. Even though 2010 saw record low U.S. traffic fatalities, they still numbered 32,788. By comparison, 711 coalition soldiers died in Afghanistan that year.

Of course, Americans have always liked the autonomy that the automobile provides, and it's going to be a tough sell for us to hand over that autonomy to the car itself. Still, I suspect that we'll see self-driving cars in most states by the end of the decade.

But driverless cars are just machines that look like slightly modified cars (mostly Priuses, in fact). What about machines that look like, gulp, us? Robots that we see on the street and share our homes with. Are we ready for those? We'd better be, because we're on the verge of encountering humanoid robot firefighters, elder-care assistants and even sex dolls. Some robots, like those of the Geminoid series, are getting uncomfortably close to being able to fool a casual observer into thinking they're people, not machines.

What hasn't kept pace is artificial intelligence. Yes, we now have expert systems like IBM's Watson, which dominated human opponents in a Jeopardy! match. That technology isn't just for games, though. It's now being used at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to help physicians diagnose and treat patients.

True, no computer has ever passed a Turing test, and we have yet to see something like Commander Data, the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation. But I believe that in our lifetimes we will get expert systems, if not true artificial intelligence, that can pass for humans, first over the Web and later "in person" when used in humanoid robots. I can see them from here.

By 2030, I expect we'll be riding in robot cars and being tended by robot helpers. Will they incorporate Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics? We might want to think about that. After all, robots are already used in another human endeavor: war. At a time when we're considering using unmanned drones to patrol our airspace, we need to acknowledge that these are no longer just science-fiction plot devices, but real issues that demand real answers.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bps was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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