Dec 13 2011

Quadrotors Will Do Everything (Well, Almost)


About a year ago I wrote an article for H+ magazine on the use of quadrotors for a variety of purposes, ranging from VR telepresence units to sensor platforms for dangerous environments to construction.

So, you can imagine my reaction on reading this article on Singularity Hub.  In short, it’s about a demonstration of robotic assembly, done by quadrotors under computer control, building a 20 foot tall tower out of lightweight foam blocks. Foam might not sound impressive, but it’s a public demonstration, so I’m sure foam was chosen not only because it’s light enough to not place a major strain on the copters, but because it’s soft enough to not cause injuries if the tower falls over. The materials are meaningless however, because it’s the control systems that are the real story. Fifty quadrotors will fly under complete computer control, having to navigate not just the static environment, but the variable obstacle course of all the other quadrotors, the changing environment of the tower being built and maybe even having to dodge the occasional overly curious onlooker. As you can probably imagine, I had to grin. Not even a full year later, and already we’re seeing stories about quadrotors being used as I described.

But I’m not the only one who’s seen how useful quadrotor could be. In a recent blog post, K. Eric Drexler asked “Where are the Parrots?” He looks at the robots used to explore the Fukushima reactor, a pair of Monirobo’s, a track based one armed robot that have a top speed of 2.4 kph, and weigh 600kg, and has to wonder why such clumsy robots were being used when the Parrot AR drone makes a far superior platform for the job. He points out that  many “Very Serious People” are dismissive of “toys”

So I decided to do a review and take a look at what sort of developments have been happening with quadrotors over the last year. First up, I have a video from January of 2011, just a few months after my original article.

As you can see, this features construction with modular materials… in this case, magnetically connectable girders. It provides an illustration of the most basic concept of the quadrotor construction battalion.

However, to really appreciate the potential here I have another video for you

That’s a video of China’s Broad Group building a modular hotel in less than one week. Now replace every human worker in the video with a quadrotor and you can probably guess what the upcoming demo is going to look like.

Precision swarming has also made advances since that first video, as this one from September of 2011 illustrates.

These videos are from the ETH labs in Zurich, and are part of a great series of quadrotor developments they have made, but autonomous flight is not the only kind of developments they are working on.

I found a very interesting video in which they are demonstrating a “control interface” that is entirely virtual, powered by a Kinect.

While I think full “mind control” of quadrotors via an emotive epoch style headset is what will eventually become the primary control interface of an RTU drone, the Kinect demo shows how intuitive we can make the control systems for everyday use of quadroters. This ease of use is one of the primary advantages of using quadrotors as camera and sensor platforms for dangerous environment navigation, like the Fukushima reactors.

There’s lots more interesting videos out there covering the many capabilities of quadrotors, from DIY projects to various university reports, and they all continue to say the same thing I first thought a year ago. Quadrotors are neither a toy, nor a curiosity. They are the first primitive stages of a variety of useful tools that will reshape how we do many things. I’m looking forward to seeing videos of the construction demo, because I love seeing the future be developed right in front of me.

And of course, getting to say “told you so!” : )

Jun 23 2011

I Am A Mechanical Man: Robocops & Robowars


“Now, to some extent, we’re all Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop.”

Some movies ought to be left alone. Not because they’re no longer relevant… but because they’re too relevant. Jose Padiliha’s planned 2013 reboot of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 masterwork Robocop is one such transgression of cinematic and historical decency. In 1987, Robocop was science fiction. Now, it’s the nightly news. One wonders what a Robocop reboot would have to say about a world that’s now a lot closer to the original movie than we might like to admit

Robocop was a profoundly humanist film. It was Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s satire of American corporate culture, as he would later parody American imperialism with Starship Troopers — though the point of both movies was largely lost on American audiences easily distracted by the tongue-in-cheek hyperviolence. It was about Detroit as a microcosm of America. It was about American industry — both blue and white collar — becoming outmoded. It was about an Alvin Toffler Third Wave world in which cops, criminals and governments alike are just branches of corporations; corporations that fuel inner city chaos and wars of imperial expansion in order to keep the bottom line up. Robocop was about a world only slightly less commodified than our own — as tagged by the film’s running catch phrase, “I’d buy that for a dollar!”

Set in an exaggerated version of the Reagan/Thatcher era, much of the film’s narrative fascination came from observing a corporate, cybernetic police state, considered to be a science fiction parody of the then-current political climate, but science fiction nonetheless. A quarter century and two Bushes later, this is no longer the case.

Now, to some extent, we’re all Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop. Though we may not be physically grafted to machines (yet), we are welded to them in every other possible way, fused to them in consciousness, dependent on them not only to support or enhance almost every part of our existences but also to uphold an increasingly restrictive social order. We live in a corporate military state in which wars are conducted by robotics, in which Predator drones patrol our far-off imperial holdings and we patrol ourselves through the voluntary surveillance system called Facebook.

We are completely enmeshed and interwoven with technology, both as consumer and producer — reduced to being subjects of the narrative of “high tech” in which there is no longer a split between human and machine, but rather a split between “human machine” and “machine machine,” like the split between Robocop and his nemesis, the ED209 walking tank. Now humanity is not something that maintains opposition to “machine” but something that is performed within the context of “machine.” Some machines are considered human (for instance, Apple products) and some are not (Microsoft products), and we are only ever as human as the electronic experiences we choose to consume. Our social identities are subsets of these machines — a carefully cultivated Google trail; a mask worn within the mainframe.

Now, the corporatized police of Robocop seem prophetically accurate — quaint even. In a 2009 TED talk, the Brookings Institution’s P. W. Singer revealed that there are 5,300 unmanned air drones and 12,000 unmanned ground systems currently deployed in the Middle East by the United States military. These numbers are projected to skyrocket in coming years — by 2015, more than half of the army will be robotic. And that’s only the U.S. — 43 countries are currently working on military robots.

The soldier of the near future will look a lot like Robocop — consider DARPA and Raytheon’s combat exoskeleton prototypes. The ED209 isn’t that different from U.S. military robots already in development or deployment like the BigDog rough-terrain robot, much publicized on the Internet, as well as lesser-known tank or pack robots like the ACER, MATILDA, TALON, MARV and MAUD, and many others. Or Japanese company Sakakibara Kikai’s Landwalker, which looks pretty much exactly like ED209. ED209’s short-circuit from the beginning of the film, when it accidentally kills a corporate lackey. This, too, is now something that has occurred. In his TED talk, Singer describes a South African anti-aircraft cannon that had a “software glitch” and killed nine soldiers. Singer calls this “unmanned slaughter,” conducted by machines that are unable to comprehend the idea of “war crime.” Even ED209 squeals like a recognizable form of life when vanquished. However, Predator and Reaper drones are completely silent, providing no warning before they strike.

We have robots in the air — unmanned drones; the newly completed Anubis assassination micro-drone. We have robots in space — the recently launched, classified X-37B plane. And we have a whole host of other current or projected future weapons seemingly culled from 1980s science fiction films — spiderweb armor, liquid armor, invisibility cloaks, drones made to look like insects.

These are not merely efficient, emotionless killing machines. They are also instruments of psychological terror. They are the new face of the Panopticon— as Jeremy Bentham once examined (to the great detriment of everybody ever since, as it has become the model that our culture is to some extent based on), those who are made to think they are being watched are just as controlled as those that actually are being watched.

“We have them thinking that we can track them anywhere,” a former top CIA operations official recently told the Washington Post, referring to the psychological tactic of leading Taliban to believe that tracking devices for Predator drones could be everywhere and in anything. “That we’ve got devices in their cars, their houses, everywhere. They’re so afraid to stay in their houses at night they’re digging foxholes to sleep in.”

These machines are the implements of casual genocide. They are antithetical to human life, a betrayal of humanity, as they are a way to further remove the act of killing from anything that might be able to find remorse in doing so. Indeed, no one will even be able to find any meaning at all, even flat-out hatred, which would still be a human emotional response. Robotic war will be war conducted by spreadsheets. And, ultimately, such machines will hold no allegiance to any country, as they will be quickly copied by or even sold to the highest bidder.

This is where questions must be raised about the responsibility and power not only of arms manufacturers and their comrades, but also of science fiction writers and directors. Over the preceding decades, we have fetishized the machine. Art has concerned itself with the shock of new technology; with the process of becoming cybernetic. Artists have become spectators at the surgery, providing running commentary as we wait to see whether our culture will accept or reject its implants. Yet artists are more than just observers, reporters, and commentators. They are also creators. The narrative of robotic war, begun in science fiction and made real by defense contracts, might be seen, from a certain angle, as the progression of a single thing manifesting over time. Though art may be the play-acting of an idea, it can also, to some extent, be the testing of an idea — and if successful in its simulation of reality, can all too easily become reality.

On the other hand, counter-narratives to “technological progress” prove just as appalling.  The complete rejection of science represented by the Sarah Palins of the world is almost inconceivably brutal dehumanization — a complete subjugation to a reactionary, patriarchal, anti-woman, anti-human “god” — every bit as frightening as the narrative of cyborg hypercapitalism.

In A Cyborg Manifesto (1991), Donna Haraway wrote, “From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defense, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war… From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point.”

What would the real cybernetic shock be now? The grafting of more machine parts into our lives or the grafting of more human parts? Our lives are almost unthinkable without Internet connections, or without the oil brought home for us by the machines of war. To withdraw from either would be a far more potentially fatal shock to the system than the implantation of actual wetware cybernetics. An augmented reality optical chip, for instance, would only help facilitate our current condition, and would likely become socially enforced within certain economic brackets, just as smart phones were.

Can we create a non-alienated cybernetic world? Can we even begin to conceive of what that would look like? We can’t undo the past, but we can change the script of the future before it is acted out. Perhaps the challenge lies is finding new narratives that, instead of reacting against high technology, effectively reorient it towards serving human life — and humane values — instead of destroying them.

The Luddite back-to-the-land ethos of the early environmental movement has given way in recent decades to a vision of a more integrated future. Our most viable version of a livable future is the Green Cyborg in which technology and humanity meet halfway and start caretaking rather than dominating the Earth’s natural resources. This should be framed not as a return to neolithic, matriarchal values but as a forward synthesis of industrial technology and holistic thinking. This requires a simple shift in perspective from observing the world as a jumble of disconnected parts to observing it as an integrated system in which each part affects every other. It is a shift from seeing the world as parts in competition with each other to seeing it as parts striving for an emergent state of co-operative efficiency.

A liveable future lies not in a wholesale rejection of the cyborg process of becoming welded to high technology, but in remembering that we are already cyborgs — that we are already inseparably connected not only to each other, but to everything on the planet, including even the worst parts of postindustrial society and its byproducts and side-effects.

The challenges of this century will be cyborg ones. They will be challenges of synthesis — of discovering how to achieve balance within systems. We will work to establish an ever-evolving cybernetic balance within a frontierless, privacy-free, boundary-free, pluralistic world. This is not a New Age band-aid in which the easy answer is to simply realize that we are all one. Realizing that we are all parts of a single system is only the first step in effectively coping with and implementing that realization — work that may require more time than we have, yet which we must accomplish nonetheless. It is nothing less than the firm establishment and protection of our humanity and humaneness against all affronts to it; nothing less than remembering that we must use our tools properly lest we be used by them.

Robocop can’t be remade because it’s no longer the story of one comic book hero — it’s the story of all of us, left scratching our heads after the operation, struggling to integrate, hoping to one day remember what life was once like, left with the daily task of making sense and meaning of a mechanized world from which the only escape is that which we build from the scrapheap.

Jun 13 2011

The Intertwined Histories of Artificial Life and Civil Rights


All modern tales of robots, automatons and other would-be humans trace a lineage to Mary Shelley’s 1817 masterpiece Frankenstein:  The Modern Prometheus. This is a story of a tinkerer (named Victor Frankenstein) stitching together dead body parts, and then enlivening the assembly with galvanic charge (resulting in “the monster” pop culture mistakenly calls Frankenstein).  It is the forerunner of many variations on human-makes-imitation, imitation-feels-aggrieved, imitation-goes-amok, human-regrets-imitation.

The imitations may be of flesh, as in Frankenstein, or of a kind of bio-plastic, as in Karel Capek’s 1920 play that gave us the word “robot” –  R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots).  Alternatively, the imitations can really look robotic with metallic composite bodies such as in the film I, Robot, starring Will Smith.  Or, copies can be completely virtual as in the avatars deployed against humans in The Matrix.

The imitation’s grievance is generally traceable to a lack of acceptance, as in Frankenstein, or second-class citizenry, as in Astro Boy (originally created in manga format as Tetsuwan Atomu by Osamu Tezuka in the aftermath of World War II).  The sense of rejection may then express itself as reverse specism at perceived human inferiority, the sentiment of the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica. The resulting mayhem may be a handful of murders, as in Frankenstein, or an effort to kill only the “bad humans,” as in I Robot, or total genocide of almost all humans, as in R.U.R. And the sense of regret runs the gamut of quests to kill the Frankenstein, hunt down only potentially dangerous robots or prohibit any kind of artificial intelligence.

The imitations do not always go berserk.   Some use self-pity to deal with the rejection and discrimination.  The sadly earnest robot boy in Spielberg’s AI endlessly searches for a mother’s love, ultimately drowning himself in the quest.  The stoically diligent robot servant in Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg’s novel Positronic Man (the basis for Bicentennial Man starring Robin Williams) reinvents himself as a blood-based dying human.  Even without anti-human violence, the imitations always tend to feel the Frankenstein monster’s sense of abandonment and the humans always tend to feel Victor Frankenstein’s regret at creating an imitation.   After all, a Mother did dump the cute AI kid by the side of a highway (she did kindly leave him with his robot Teddy), and a Father did kick the Bicentennial Man out of the house he immaculately maintained.

Empowerment (via creation of an imitation) followed by Disappointment (due to the imitation feeling separate, unequal, unloved and/or threatened).  Conflict (arising out of humanity’s inadequate response to the imitation’s unhappiness) followed by Regret (based on humanity’s disdain for the conflict).  These are the themes of robots and other human-like creations:  Rising expectations, crashing expectations, agitation and lamentation.  These also are the age-old themes of civil rights.

It was in the very same time frame of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the early 1800s, when our modern concepts of civil rights came into being.  While rights for preferred demographic groups date to antiquity, only around the time of Frankenstein did civil rights per se, i.e., the notion that anyone who values being free should be free, become a popular concept.  The American and French Revolutions, in 1776 and 1791, respectively, set the stage for civil rights with brilliant declarations of freedom understandable by the masses.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  Yet, in fact, these revolutions were for free white men.  Hence, as recounted in Hochschild’s Bury the Chains, as of the late 1700s the vast majority of people in the world believed slavery was part of life, and that it had always been part of life, and always would be.  It was blessed in the bible and it was the economic foundation of the European empires.  The new French republic repulsed slave rebellions in its territories.  Women were no freer under George Washington than they were under King George.

It took an unprecedented generation-long public education effort, led by the self-freed slave Olaudah Equiano and the Cambridge-educated free-thinker Thomas Clarkson, to persuade the English public that “slaves were people” too.  Of course everyone realized that a slave’s body was that of a human, but very few thought that a slave’s soul was that of a person, certainly not that of a free person.  This was a massive education effort culminating in documents such as Britain’s 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, Britain’s 1818 Treaties with Spain, France and Portugal to ban the slave trade, and New York State’s decision, in 1817, to forbid slavery as of July 4th, 1827.  It took bestselling books and countless lectures that brought the heartfelt personhood of former slaves crashing into the minds of free people.  Common citizens began to understand, en masse, that someone who felt like them, even if born a slave, deserved to be treated like them.

Of course there was no “Autobiography of Frankenstein’s Monster,” as there was of Frederic Douglass.  There was no “Vindication of the Rights of Frankenstein’s Monster,” as there was of Woman, thanks to Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 polemic.  There were no real imitations of humans to create such calls to conscience.

Slaves, women and other oppressed people occupied the role of being an imitation of a human.  By bringing an African across the ocean to the plantation, an imitation of a human had been created – a slave – someone that looked (somewhat, to white people) human, but lived a boxed life of labor, torment and possession.   The act of enslavement was an empowerment for the masters, a human creation not different in kind than Frankenstein’s monster.   In quite an analogous manner the taking of a (usually) girl as one’s wife, in an age without recourse to divorce or remedy for spousal abuse, was another kind of enslavement.  By marrying a girl an imitation of a human had been created – a wife – someone that seemed (oddly, to men) human, but lived a boxed life of labor (until she died of it), torment and possession.  The act of betrothal was empowering for the husbands, but the creation of a wife was rarely followed with love or equal status.  Instead, her second-class citizenship was impressed upon her as firmly as the brand upon an African slave.

Just as has been the plotline in imagined technological imitations of humans, second-class citizenship for women and racial minorities was met with resentment and conflict.  The rising expectations of Africans born in the Americas were slapped down by racism.  The rising expectations of women empowered by the industrial revolution were crushed by sexism.  These dashed hopes fueled decade after decade of conflict – the long march of civil rights from the 1860s to the 1960s.

In the past two centuries, imitations of life and civil rights have swirled about each other like a strand of DNA.   The fictional imitations evolved from being called “monsters” or “things” by Shelley to “robot” meaning “forced worker” in Slavic by Capek.  Meanwhile, the socially constructed imitations evolved from being called “slaves” or “chattel” in the early 1800s to being called “coloreds” in the 1920s.  Women went from having no property rights in a marriage to equal rights.  The birth of artificial intelligence (AI), in the 1950s, gradually made Frankenstein-like stories plausible, albeit with digital persons rather than fused body parts.   A decade later, in 1968, we had a credible digital person, HAL, in Kubrick’s film 2001 A Space Odyssey, running America’s first spaceship to Jupiter, and (again) feeling aggrieved, and then going amok as he murdered crewmen.   As 1960s-era fictional robots and digital creations murdered humans on movie screens out of paranoia and resentment of second-class citizenship, out in the streets real world riots flared from equivalent emotions.

Meanwhile, America’s Civil Rights Movement slowly gathered steam with women’s voting rights in the 1920s, and African-American enforceable rights in the 1960s.  Some of the intertwined arc of robotics and civil rights can be appreciated in the life of a single great 20th century actor, Spencer Tracy.   He had his Broadway debut, in 1922, as a robot in R.U.R., and his Hollywood sunset, in 1967, as the sanctifier of a pioneering inter-racial marriage in Guess Whose Coming to Dinner. Gay, lesbian and even transgender rights arose in the 1980s upon an expanding platform of feminist and people of color successes.  Hence, few were surprised when, in 1989, Star Trek: The Next Generation aired its “Measure of a Man” episode, heralding the civil rights of digital people such as Commander Data.  The 200-year convergence of artificial life and civil rights has arrived.

Today most people regret treating Africans, other immigrants and women as second-class citizens, or much worse.  We realize that when we mistreated the “imitation” of a person – the wife of a husband, or the slave of a master – we unleashed an inevitable flood of resentment and conflict.  As in the cultural history of robots, automatons and other imitations, we realize at the end of the trail of tears that it was all so unnecessary.  Had Victor Frankenstein loved his creation, it would not have gone berserk.   Had all immigrants been treated equally, there would not be the fear, loathing and bloodshed that accompanied the march of civil rights.  Had men cherished the magic of women’s bodies, and partnered on the basis of equality, uncountable lives would not have been torn asunder in domestic discord.

The lesson of the intertwined cultural histories of techno-human imitations and civil rights is clear:  that which values life, regardless of its form, heritage or substrate, will demand to be respected in its value of life.   Tolerate substrate diversity easily in its beginnings, or tolerate it hard in the end.   If something thinks like a human, it will want to be loved, it will resent being abandoned and it will channel its anger in strange and unpredictable ways.  Better for all that we love, nurture and respect that which we create in our likeness.

Copyright Martine Rothblatt 2011