Friday, February 23, 2007

An e-puck outing

At a little over 5 cm tall the e-pucks are remarkable little robots. Here is a picture from the web pages of supplier and all round good people at Cyberbotics. Our e-pucks got their first outing at the Brighton Science Festival's Big Science Sunday, on February 18th (and let me pay tribute to festival organiser Richard). A small pack of 4 or 5 e-pucks in a table top arena proved to be a compelling attraction for kids of all ages. A great talking point that allowed us to pontificate about everything from ants and swarm intelligence to the future of robots in society. Here is a picture with my colleague Claire Rocks in mid-demonstration showing part of the arena with two of the e-pucks contrasting with the old Linuxbot on the left. It's amazing to think that the Linuxbot was state-of-the-art technology just 10 years ago. The e-pucks, with sound (microphones and speaker), vision (camera and LEDs), bluetooth radio, proximity sensors and accelerometer are astonishingly sensor-rich compared with the venerable Linuxbot and its generation.

Now the small size of the e-puck can be deceptive. A week or so before the Brighton gig I thought I would try and code up some new swarm behaviours for the robots. "Little robot - how hard can it be", I thought to myself as I sat down to an evening's light coding. Boy was I mistaken. Within the e-puck's densely packed motherboard is a complex system which belies its small size. The Microchip dsPIC microcontroller at the heart of the e-puck has come a long way from the reduced-instruction-set and reduced-everything-else 8 bit PIC I programmed with a few dozen lines of assembler for our early Bismark robot 10 years ago. And in the e-puck the microcontroller is surrounded by some pretty complex sub-systems, such as the sound i/o codec, the camera and the bluetooth wireless. It's a complex system of systems. So, suitably humbled, I shall have to take some time to learn to program the e-puck*.

Just goes to show that with robots too, appearances can be deceptive.

*Fortunately, and with remarkable generosity, the e-puck's designers have released the whole of the e-puck design - hardware and software - under an open source licence. So there are lots of function libraries and example programs to be explored.
And I should have mentioned that, in addition to public engagement, we're also evaluating the e-pucks as possible robots for our new Artificial Culture project. More blogs about this in due course.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Rights of Robot

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote about wild predictions of human level AI. Another prediction that has caught the attention of the general press is about robot rights. See for instance this piece in the otherwise sensible Financial Times: uk report says robots will have rights, or the BBC technology news here, and elsewhere. 

The prediction that provoked these responses is worth a look: Robo-rights: Utopian dream or rise of the machines? 

The report, by Outsights - Ipsos MORI, was part of the UK government's strategic horizon scanning exercise and is pretty brief at a little over 700 words. In a nutshell, the report says that if robots gain artificial intelligence then calls may be made for them to be granted human rights. The report doesn't make it clear whether such calls would be made by humans on robots' behalf, or by the robots themselves (although the only link given is to the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Robots, which seems to imply the former). The likelihood of this is rated 1 out of 3 stars (33%..?), and timescale 21-50+ years. The report, which is clearly written from a legal perspective (nothing wrong with that), goes on to make some frankly surreal speculations about robots voting, becoming tax payers or enjoying social benefits like housing or health-care. 

Hang on, is this really a UK government commissioned report, or a script from Futurama..? I'm surprised it didn't go on to warn of loutish robots subject to ASBOs. 

Ok, let's get real. 

Do I think robots will have (human) rights within 20-50 years? No, I do not. Or to put it another way, I think the likelihood is so small as to be negligible. Why? Because the technical challenges of moving from insect-level robot intelligence, which is more or less where we are now, to human-level intelligence are so great. 

Do I think robots will ever have rights? Well, perhaps. In principle I don't see why not. Imagine sentient robots, able to fully engage in discourse with humans, on art, philosophy, mathematics; robots able to empathise or express opinions; robots with hopes, or dreams. Think of Data from Star Trek. It is possible to imagine robots smart, eloquent and persuasive enough to be able to argue their case - like Bicentennial Man - but, even so, there is absolutely no reason to suppose that robot emancipation would be rapid, or straightforward. After all, even though the rights of man* as now generally understood were established over 200 years ago, human rights are still by no means universally respected or upheld. Why should it be any easier for robots?

*or, to be accurate, 'men'.