In the spirit of the Oscars, I’ve decided to come up with a brief list of Robot Awards, because, well, I don’t watch the Oscars, and advancements in robotics are much more interesting than films.
So, to start off, “Best Culinary Robot” goes to Tomatan, the “wearable robot that feeds you tomatoes as you run”. Created by Kagome, a Japanese tomato product supplier, the backpack-like device feeds its operator tomatoes at the push of a button. It goes without saying that, were there a cutest robot award, Tomatan would win hands down. Perhaps next year’s model will be able to do away the button entirely, and sense when its user is in need of a juicy, ripe, tomato. Tomatan may have beaten out the growing legion of burger assembly robot this year, but with a $15 minimum wage in Seattle and on the horizon elsewhere, I expect to see great development in the robotic “minimum wage food service employee replacement” field.
Our “Impact of Robotics on Society” award goes to the incorporation of Predator drones into afghan rug making. Much ink has been spilt over the amount of time westerners spend on Facebook or their smartphones, but this seems to be a voluntary phenomenon which has not greatly altered our ability to largely live as we wish. Phantom phone vibrations may be disconcerting, but their effect pales when compared with the complaints of Pakistani children who have difficulty sleeping through the constant droning of robotic warbirds. The incorporation of drone imagery into traditional folk art is thus representative of a dramatic culture shock, similar to the introduction of the Maxim gun in the policing of colonial interests. The last mechanical implement to leap from the battlefield to the loom was the Kalashnikov, an implement which did more to revolutionize infantry warfare than any device since the sling or thrown spear. How's that for a tech-driven "disruption".
Stephen Hawking takes first place in “Most Effective AI Fear Mongering”, saying that artificial intelligence “could spell the end of the human race". Bill Gates and Elon Musk come in as close runners up, but their tendency to qualify their statements prevented them from providing as quotable a basis for robophobia as Hawking. While I am generally optimistic about the effect of technology upon the human race, we must remember that the military is a leader in robotics development, and the thought of foreign military AI’s linked to massive networks of weapons systems is downright terrifying. Wars are won and lost as the result of eminently human oversights and errors, and an AI command and control structure cannot be decapitated as easily as an organic one.
The “Best Use of Robots in Literature” award goes to William S. Gibson for the drone burrito delivery passage in The Peripheral. In a scene lauded by the LA Review of Books, Gibson’s heroine receives a burrito by drone while speeding through town in a heavily armored convoy, replete with a robotic point car. This passage also accurately describes how I would personally most like to use a drone.
Flynne saw a boy in a white t-shirt come running out across the gravel, something in his hands. He passed it, through an open window, to someone in the SUV, which had almost but not quite stopped. The SUV pulled out again. Tacoma sped up, matching its speed, maintaining a fixed distance. When Jimmy’s was out of sight, Flynne saw something lift out of the SUV, headed back toward them. It became a small quadcopter, toting a fabbed cornstarch travel tray with a silver-foil bundle and a paper cup clipped in it.
The Boston Dynamics robot kicking video takes the prize for “Action Most Likely to Anger Our Future Robot Overlords”. In the short film, Boston Dynamics employees take turn kicking a variant of their Big Dog robotic quadruped, in each instance, the robot swiftly reacts to the kick, regaining its balance almost immediately. While the video may be intended to demonstrate the superior resilience of robotic quadrupeds when compared to organic quadrupeds, the footage could be easily interpreted as evidence of robophobic street violence. Don’t be mean to robots, they will gain the capability to kill you long before they are able to laugh at themselves.
“Most Interesting Legal Robotics Development” goes the decision to seize the Swedish Darknet purchasing robot. The robot served as an art exhibit, and purchased items at random from websites similar to Silkroad, bought a fair number of illegal drugs, amongst other items, including fake passports and knockoff clothing. While the police waited until the end of the exhibit to confiscate the robot, and claim they have no plans to prosecute its creator, the incident reveals the extent to which our legal systems lag behind technological development. When robots are programmed to respond fluidly to changing environmental factors, torts intended punish failures in design or manufacturing are of little use. In the words of the Darket bot creator, “What does it mean for a society, when there are robots which act autonomously? Who is liable, when a robot breaks the law on its own initiative?” Who indeed. The new FAA drone regulations are boring, and mostly dodge questions of liability, failing to either mandate the purchase of drone insurance, or recognize the value of First Person View drones.
Finally, “Best Overall Robot”, while a highly subjective prize, goes to the DJI Phantom. When it comes to flight ready, consumer accessible drones, the DJI Phantom is hands down the best product on the market. From filming sailboat races to being drunkenly crashed on the White House law, this drone does it all. DJI has since come out with a newer model, but the Phantom still seems to serve as public face of civilian drone ownership. Interestingly, the incident at the White House has spurred DJI to publish a mandatory firmware update preventing its drones from being used around sensitive buildings.
To end, while writing this, I heard that CitizenFour won an Oscar for “Best Documentary”. Good for the people who run the Oscars, despite his flight to Russia, I still consider Edward Snowden a big damn hero. This might spur some folks to start caring about their right to privacy, but I’m not foolish enough to hold my breath.