Make way for the machinesWill there come a time when people and robots actually coexist, as they do in science fiction?
For decades, human beings have imagined a day when robots would be part of our daily lives ― from the stories of the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov to the old cartoon series “The Jetsons.”
Many scientists believe the coexistence of humans and humanlike, or humanoid, robots isn’t so far away.
“In 10 years, it will be possible to have a robot that would have movements very similar to ours,” said Choi Hyeung-sik, a professor at Korea Maritime University.
“I heard from a Japanese professor that Honda Motor, the creator of Asimo, will soon present a robot that can run,” said Oh Sang-rok, a professor at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology.
Asimo, a robot introduced in 2000, amazed observers by walking on two legs and even dancing, with movements similar to those of a person. “If what Honda is planning comes true, it will be a revelation in the field of robot research,” Mr. Oh said.
The key to creating robots very similar to us lies in the technology of artificial intelligence (or A.I.). Hans Moravec, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, predicts that by the year 2040, robots that think like humans will appear.
If such robots aren’t far off, neither are the conflicts they’ll create in our values.
The benign “Three Laws of Robotics” that Isaac Asimov imagined in his influential 1950s stories seem unlikely now. Mr. Asimov’s first law was that robots couldn’t harm human beings. The second was that they were to obey human orders. The third was that they were to protect themselves, as long as that didn’t conflict with the first two laws.
The use of robotics in weaponry has already erased Mr. Asimov’s first law, said Kim Mun-sang, a professor at the Korea Institue of Science and Technology.
“With the war in Iraq, the first law has been broken,” Mr. Kim said. “Of course, the person who built such a robot for aggressive assault would have a different view ― that the robot’s purpose is to save human life, by fighting in a human’s place.”
Are people really prepared to coexist with robots? Japan has been preparing for such a society for years. Mr. Oh of the Korea Institute of Science and Technology said several municipal offices in Japan are working on traffic legislation that would apply both to people and to robots, in case robots begin to drive vehicles.
What if machines rise up against mankind, as in the “Terminator” movies? It might not be so unlikely. Honda’s Asimo recently made its debut as a department store clerk. Although Asimo is unlikely to start slaughtering people, he could be seen as the start of an “invasion” that could one day threaten people’s livelihoods.
Robots could also require fundamental changes in the law. “If robots could think, completely different laws would have to be made,” said Kim Han-joo, a lawyer.
“The first question that would have to be addressed would be, ‘What is the definition of life?’ Then laws regarding nationalities, penalties ― every law you know would have to be changed,” Mr. Kim said.
For such reasons, some are against the development of humanoid robots. Chin Kyo-hun argues that if robots with emotions and intelligence threaten the identity of the human race, they shouldn’t be created.
But if ethical reservations haven’t stopped experimentation in cloning and genetic engineering, can they slow down AI technology?
Not all robots are created equal
There are so many kinds of robots ― in theory and in practice ― that even experts have a hard time categorizing them. Every three years, the International Federation of Robotics holds a meeting and re-examines the classifications.
The word “robot” itself was introduced in the 1920s by the Czech playwright Karel Capek, in his play “R.U.R.” It comes from the Czech word robota, meaning forced labor.
Here, in simplifed form, are some robot categories:
Humanoid: Though often used to refer to robots, this just means something with a humanlike appearance ― it can be a robot, an alien or any other creature, as long as it resembles a person. “Humanoid” can also refer to a robot with humanlike intelligence.
Android: A robot with an organic, cellular surface (think of Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator”). The word comes from a Greek word meaning “resembling human.”
Cyborg: “Cyborg,” coined in the 1950s, is shortened from “cybernetic organism.” It means a living creature with some robotic parts, such as eyes, limbs or internal organs.
Across the East Sea, robots are already making themselves at home
They say that Japan is a kingdom of robots.
According to the 2002 World Yearbook, Japan has 48 percent of the working robots in the world.
Believe it or not, one reason is the Japanese animated character Atom, also known as Astro Boy (pictured at right).
Created by Osamu Tezuka in 1952, Astro Boy has been popular with Japanese viewers generation after generation. Some robot developers in Japan say that Astro Boy was one of the reasons they got started in robot research.
Amagai Satoshi, who is responsible for the creation of the popular Japanese robot dog Aibo, said he grew up watching the cartoon and wanted to create a robot which ― like Astro Boy ― had the emotions of a human being.
Aibo, unveiled in 1999 by Sony, and Honda Motor’s creation Asimo, introduced a year later, are among the most impressive products of the Japanese robotics industry. Asimo, a humanoid robot weighing 50 kilograms (110 pounds), stunned the world with a walk that was similar to a person’s.
Aibo and Asimo are characterized in the robotics industry as “life assistants.”
Robots have been used industrially on production lines for some time, but in Japan they’re slowly encroaching on consumers’ daily lives.
Sanyo Electronics, in a joint effort with tmsuk Co., a small robotics firm, last year announced the development of Banryu (“guard dragon”), a robot designed to protect homes.
This small robot alerts homeowners not only to the presence of intruders, but gas leaks and fires as well.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industry has come up with Wakamaru, a household robot that provides companionship. Wakamaru can recognize individual faces and strike up conversations.
Sony's latest robot, SDR4X2, not only dances but can right itself when it falls.
The Japanese robot industry has one major problem in reaching the consumer: Because the cost of research and development for such robots is high, so is the price of the product. But Japanese researchers say they devote themselves to the work in the belief that their industry, while out of the reach of many consumers now, will one day be bigger than the personal computer industry.
by Pyo Jae-yong