Coded gray.

Thursday 8 February 2001

Screenshot The Sims

Pic of the day: The friendly household robot from The Sims expansion pack.

The robots are coming

When I was a kid, robots were waiting in the near future. As I said yesterday, the robots are not always what we expect them to be. At my workplace today, we had got a pretty big file with data which I sorted into the database. I've worked there long enough to remember when we got those data on paper. Each record was on an A5 sheet (half the size of a European standard letter sheet). People, mostly underpaid wives, sorted those into the folders. Thousands of records. Tens of thousands. It took weeks. Now, I order the computer to do it ... but of course, those are electronic records now. We don't actually see housewife shaped robots sitting at the desks doing the work that the humans used to do.

In old times, people washed their clothes by hand, beating them out in water. It was hard work, and unsurprisingly it mostly fell to the wives. Then came the washing machines. I remember back home when we got our first programmable washing machine ... suddenly washing clothes became the realm of the men. Ahem. One could imagine robots washing the clothes by hand the way the wives did. If robots had been invented early enough, that would have seemed a reasonable application. Perhaps we would also have robot horses to pull our carts.

I still wield my vaccuum cleaner in basically the same way that people did in the 1950es, except in the 1950es they had wives to do that. Perhaps the next generation of vaccuums will run on batteries and methodically traverse the room and any open doors in search of dust. The size of a small dog, making only a low purring sound, it will stretch its funny elephant-like trunk into tight spots to suck out the dust. It won't be a robot the way we imagine robots. It will just be a better vaccuum cleaner. With computer chips of rodent complexity costing very little, it will be tempting to make a robotic vaccuum. We probably won't even think of it as such. It will be as natural as the dishwasher is today.


I also mentioned yesterday that I believe our cars will drive better than we do. (Well, with me that doesn't say much.) Real automatic cars probably won't show up in a long long time, thanks to the fear of lawsuits. Failure happens. More likely, we will see navigation assist computers and safety assist computers. The navcomps will keep track of where you are driving by means of invisible markers in the road or in road signs or even by GPS. It also has the benefit of knowing from the Road-Net where there is congestion, road work or recent accidents, and its road quality data will tell when a longer stretch will actually be faster. It will inform you in various ways, but not actually turn the steering wheel. Yet. The safecomps will use a weak radar or infrared cameras or such, and warn you when you drive too close to other cars (or they to you) or when something is approaching the road from the sides. Eventually it will be able to cut engine power and apply brakes when necessary, for safety. But it won't do all the driving. Yet.

The car of the future will also be able to connect to other cars in a road-train, automatically following the leader car in exactly the same speed and direction. The cars may not even need to physically touch. This should speed up traffic enormously in many situations. Incidentally, it also paves the way for the self-driving car. You get used to not touching the wheel, even when riding your own car.


For social purposes, the robots have moved onto the Net. I occasionally see advertisement for "virtual girlfriends", though I have never gone deeper into this matter. I assume that they are pretty simple, which should be all that's needed for the guys who seek out such company. But as chat rooms and multiplayer online games blend, while computer controlled NPCs (non playing characters) become steadily more advanced ... how long will it be before people accidentally try to form a relationship with an artificial intelligence? For all I know it may be happening already ... it isn't the kind of event you'd tell your comrades at work about.

Today, artificial intelligence is still no match for natural stupidity, but the two are getting closer. Couple this with high resolution graphics and the habit of using an online "avatar" that may look strikingly different from your physical body (see "furry"). It is a disconcerting thought, but there is already software that learns from observing how the user habitually does things, and prepares for this. Eventually you may have a "digital clone" that has stored months of your online behavior, and may continue to act in your place while you're off on vacation ... or dead. And nobody will know. Even if they call you, the computer may intercept the call and cheerfully pretend to be you, in your voice!

Would we perhaps even want this to happen? Right now, I think most of us would react with horror to the thought of having a digital clone of a loved one, talking to us after their demise, using the same language, expressing interest in the same things, holding the same opinions and beliefs, remembering lots of stuff from the past ... and even learning from the conversations you have after the transition. It may sound like a mockery, almost a blasphemy. Then again, primitive tribes are known to feel the same way about photographies. How can we stand to look at a lifelike picture smiling to us, knowing that the real person has left the mortal coils behind? In what way is that fundamentally different?

I think it would be sort of cute if there was software that could read through my entire diary archives and come up with a "what would Magnus do?" thing. Of course, I suspect such a program would be really confused. Then again, who says I am not? ;)

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