Can Robots Yearn For Phantom Limbs?
What is interesting about robots on a 500-year horizon?
This research note is part of the Mediocre Computing series
We think of the difference between robots and computers primarily in terms of mobility and manipulative ability. Computers think. AI computers “think like humans think they think.”1 Robots think kinda like humans think they think… and they move around and grasp and manipulate things kinda like humans think they do.
If computers are analogues of our brains, robots are analogues of selected subsets of the embodiments of our brains.
Specifically, they are analogues, preferably somewhat skeuomorphic, of our hands and feet. For the former, one aspect of our hands — opposable thumbs — is particularly important. The simplest robotic grippers tend to be be mitten-like, having only two “fingers” — but they are opposable.
There is something vaguely disappointing about a wheeled robot, or one that uses a principle besides the opposable thumb (such as say an electromagnet) to achieve manipulative capabilities.
A self-driving car feels, to me at least, less like a portal to a weird future of strange possibilities, and more like an adjacent-possible cul-de-sac to our gasoline-guzzling automotive present. A highly socialized AI embodied within, and limited by, an existing pre-robotic device we understand very well — a car. It is as limited by the imagination of the past as the notion of flying cars.
But are mobility and manipulative ability really the essence of what a robot is, or could be? Do they constitute the truly weird and generative aspect of robotics? The aspect that makes then an exciting technology not just for today or five years from now, but say five hundred years from now?
What is it about robots that is exciting on a 500-year time-scale?
I want to argue that mobility and manipulative ability by themselves are not enough, and are in fact secondary. That we can have a sessile, plant-like robot that satisfies sufficiently sophisticated definitions of robot better than the crude walking-grasping robots to which our defaults are anchored today.
I’ve come to believe that robots ought to be defined primarily in terms of a regime of sensing capabilities, rather than mobility or manipulation capabilities. Sensing capabilities that make them interesting on a 500-year time scale.
But what kind of sensing? Is a thermostat that senses a point temperature a robot? How about a surveillance camera? Or say a camera like the Oak-D, with onboard vision-AI capabilities, which we are evaluating for use in the Yak Rover project?
I do think a camera is an example of the kind of sensing I want to talk about, and a single-point thermostat is not. But not for the reason you might think. I’m not a “vision supremacist” the way many people in robotics today are.
A hint as to where I’m going with this is in the headline question: can robots yearn for phantom limbs? It is a question that gets at the 500-year interestingness of robots.
But I’ll get to that.
Let let’s back up to mobility and manipulation, where thanks to 200 years of mechanical engineering history, culminating in what Boston Dynamics robots can do today, we have better formed intuitions than in sensing.
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