Robots, Humans, and the Future
Daily Coffee Rant April 4, 2006
Todays retroactively decided topic: Humans, Robots, Monkeys, and Water
I've slayed a few bugs in the system, and chugged about a third of my extra large D&D. While the sugar and caffiene rush hits me, it's time to disgorge my brain onto the interwebs...
So let me continue on with my line of thought from before. I was making a point that the future of space travel involves mostly robots and giant cruise ships. (huh? ... Mental DVR backward...past the commercials...oh god this guy is in every one of these...wait right there...forward... too far... skip skip skip...there)
My prediction for the future is that space "travel" really won't happen too much. Humans will move to space, largely because we rather like living at 70 degrees year round, and real-estate on a space station is cheap. Don't like the neighbors, build a new one. Ground environments require heating in the winter, air conditioning in the summer, most of them aren't going to have a compadible atmosphere (or indeed much of any at all), for all the expense of moving to another planet and eeking out a miserable existance you could live a life of relative luxury in space.
While space may be a cheap place to live, it's a pretty hostile environment to work in. So humans will have a variety of remote operated and automated systems to work outside. You will still need to mine resources. The space station will need a good cleaning. Someone needs to pop out there and repair the solar panel some schmuck backed a shuttle into. And going back to my previous blog, it's cheaper and safer to send a robot to do the job.
Now my fair reader, you are probably saying "yawn, Utopia. Hey Sean, Looking Backward called, they want their plotline back." While a world with a pile of robotic labor would solve a lot of problems, it also causes a lot of problems.
The first problem is with the robots themselves. Robots do not blindly obey orders. They don't have the sophistication. They execute programs. They always need an operator hovering over them to keep them on track. In 50 years of cybernetics research, our smartest computer is about up to the coginitive level of a 4 year old. Keep in mind though, that is just a brain in a box that can answer questions. Our smartest robots are actually dumber than insects.
The state of the art is a truck that can cross the desert without driving off a cliff in the process. 3 times out of 4. Robots are dumb because powerful computers require massive amounts of electricity. Well, so do all the servoes, sensors, and other stuff your are trying to get the robot to do interesting things with. So you can have a brainy bot or a useful bot, or with a little creativity have a useful and brainy bot by running a dumb droid remotely.
Ok, I do have to give cybernetic technology a few kudos. Fighter planes today use computers extensively to handle all of the seat-of-the-pants flight controls for the pilot. Many new planes today are aerodynamically unstable. Basically, left to their own devices they would fly out of control. Why would you fly with something like that? Because stable aircraft turn slow, climb slow, bank slow, and slow on. To protect the pilot from entering into a control mode that would render the plane uncontrollable, he doesn't really fly it anymore.
He actually passes his orders to climb, bank, throttle, etc through a computer. That computer runs the maneuver through a simulation and then executes his order the best it can without going out of control or damaging the aircraft. Believe it or not, this is actually SAFER than relying on the pilot to keep track of these things. In certain aircraft in the past, the pilot could actually snap the wings off, enter an uncontrolled spin, or stall the aircraft pulling an extreme manuever. Now, the computer can take him or her right to the edge, and not cross over it. The computer, since it know all of the physics of the plan completely, can also use flight controls that would completely befuddle a human pilot. Things like vectored thrust that actually re-aim the engines to enhance a turn.
So lets summarize. Computers are really good at handling minute details. They stink on ice dealing with the big picture. And they know it. And we know it. Humans and robots are basically turning into a symbiotic organism, like Lichen. We may have our spats from time to time, but all in all I don't think we have to worry about robots sitting around feeling sorry for themselves.
Even if we gave them feelings, we would engineer them to enjoy feeling useful, and be depressed if they are bored. Curiously, humans also enjoy feeling useful and get depressed when they are bored.
Could it be that we are something else's equivilent to robots?
Well if it wasn't for the fact that I can point to a clear evolutionary pathway from primates to ourselves. We didn't just appear out of nowhere. Most of the recent fossil history is missing because we spent a lot of time in the water. Humans are the only primates that can swim. The gaps in our record are between 3 million and around 1 million years ago. At around 3 million years back, you see the ancestors of man, chimps, and bonobos. For 1 million years, lots of chimps and bonobos. Then about 1 million years ago, homonids (our ancestors) start showing up all over the world. On island. On coastlines. More or less in our present form: standing up, using tools. There was a little refinement in the model between 1 million BC and today. Our brain cases are bigger. Our jaw shrunk. Oh who am I kidding, I'm not an antropologist, but you can clearly see nature had an idea, tried out several options, and picked us.
The supposed "gaps" in the fossil record are under water. Well if you don't believe me that we are aquatic, let me prove it. What 3 instincts are humans born with (and there are only 3.) They are: suckling, grasping, and holding our breath when we are face down in water. Look at your hands. Now quick google "monkey hands" and look at some samples of our fellow primates. Compared to their hands, ours are fat, stubby, and broad. In the water, swimmers actually get most of their power from their arms. Our hands are flippers. Women, your boobies float. That's unique for a primate. Newborns are naturally boyant. The placement of the fat in our body, under the skin, is different than other primates who keep fat around the kidneys. We have a layer of blubber that is more like a whale or a seal than a monkey!
And if that was not enough, something like 98% of the world lives withing 50 miles of a large body of water. Can you think of a city that doesn't have at least one river?
Why all this drift into the past? Why to remember where we came from. And to posit why it is that humans seem to have many of the same emotional responses that we would actually find advantageous to robots.
All right, I'll just say it.
In addition to evolving from a tree-loving primate to a water loving psuedo-seal we also evolved into a social creature. Actually the social behavior appeared long before our shore excursion. Monkeys are solitary. They split off with us a while ago, further back than the Apes. We still see this solitary behavior in the apes, with the Oragatan. Some time between when we split form the Orangatan to the time we split from the Gorillas, we changed to a social creature. Our two closest relatives: the chimpanzee and a bonobo maintain social structure that are not all that different from ours. They have tribes, wars, territory, even diplomacy.
Where we seem to have taken off was in the use of tools. All of our evolution after that point was in a brain to develop and exploit those tools. Agriculture, animal husbandtry, irrigation, these are all applications of technology to make more time so we can play with tools.
Robots and space colonies are simply our next great tool. So to return to my point about how one can tell an interesting story in what seems like a Utopia is to remember the despite our living in what 19th century people would call a dream world we still have problems. A world that manages to solve all of our problems of today will simply have tomorrows problems.
And I'd also bet they still haven't cured the common cold. Or if they could they wouldn't because it turns out to be an important way in which humans spread genetic information.