Plenty of science fiction features robots that demonstrate what Isaac Asimov called the “Frankenstein Complex,” humanity’s fear that robots will eventually operate outside of our control and overthrow us and our way of life. Of course, this makes for more interesting stories, as demonstrated by Battlestar Galactica, Terminator, I, Robot (the movie, not the book), and countless other sci-fi narratives. The ubiquity of these stories makes it important for robot designers to combat this idea and fear, whether it’s by creating robots that aren’t terrifying to behold, by creating ones that actually help humans, or by creating little guys that are just so darn cute and adorable that you can’t help but smile at them—like Murata Manufacturing Company’s robotic cheerleaders.
Of course the Carnival of the Future features robots, but I don’t necessarily expect the same of Cirque du Soleil. But it’s good to know that the world’s most extravagant circus is capable of surprises—I mean, other than terrifying accidents—and they’re embarking on a new endeavor that brings robotics into their already breathtaking show.
The project starts with ETH Zurich, a university known for being a hub of ground-breaking technology and science. ETH has a Flying Machine Arena (FMA)—a “portable space devoted to autonomous flight.” The FMA houses, records, and facilitates the flight of various objects, though the quadrocopter is the favorite given its maneuverability. Given the FMA’s success, I suppose it was only a matter of time before they developed their own performance studio to display their awesome flying vehicles. Thus, Verity Studios, a place where ETH’s flying robots and Cirque du Soleil’s acrobatic imaginations merge, was born.
We’ve been keeping tabs on Ex-Machina since we first heard about more than year and a half ago. It sounded promising, and only got more intriguing as we heard additional details and saw the cast they put in place. But we haven’t heard anything since back in April, and we were hoping it might make an appearance at one of the fall festivals (it sounds tailor made for the midnight section of the Toronto International Film Festival or the genre heavy Fantastic Fest). But alas, it was not to be. Still, we did get a cool new still from the film, and it only serves to get us even more excited for this.
Ex-Machina marks the directorial debut of Alex Garland, who, though he hasn’t helmed a feature film before, is definitely an industry veteran. He’s written a number of movies for Danny Boyle, including 28 Days Later, The Beach, and Sunshine, and outside of that partnership, he is even behind the script for Pete Travis’ recent cult fave Dredd.
Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics is that a robot can’t harm a human or allow a human to come to harm. The purpose behind the law is to avert robot apocalypse scenarios and generally assuage people’s fear of artificial life. The problem with the law, though, is implementation. Robots don’t speak English—how would one code or program such a law, especially given how vague the notion of harm is? Does taking jobs from humans constitute harm? In Asimov’s short story “Liar,” a mind-reading robot realizes that harm can also be emotional, and lies to humans to avoid hurting their feelings, which of course only harms them more in the long run. All of this raises the bigger issue of whether robots can be programmed or taught to behave ethically, which is the subject of debate among roboticists. A recent experiment conducted by Alan Winfield of the UK’s Bristol Robotics Laboratory sheds some light on this question, and raises a new question: do we really want our robots to try and be ethical?
The experiment revolved around a task designed to exemplify Asimov’s first law. Only instead of interacting with humans, the robot subject interacted with robot substitutes. But the rule remained the same—the study robot, A, was programmed to move toward a goal at the opposite end of the table, and to “save” any of the human substitute bots (h-robots) if at all possible as they moved toward a hole.
Even though many people believe robots and other automated systems will put many out of work (others believe they will usher in a new era of innovation and resourcefulness), research conducted by MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) reveals that workers actually prefer for robots to take the lead in manufacturing tasks. The study explores the two sides of robotic workers: on the upside, they free humans from tasks characterized by the “three D’s” — tasks that are dirty, dangerous, and/or dull. Of course, if robots do assume those jobs, what’s left for humans? Oversight? Programming? Perhaps collaboration with the robots?
As NASA debates whether to send more people to the moon, as well as whether, how, and when to try a manned mission to Mars, it has decided to fund a new kind of robot for space exploration: tumbling cubes.