The Brave New Age

Robert J. Collins

by Robert J. Collins

Research and development has been going on for several decades. Despite periodic setbacks and amusing little errors cropping up along the way, results have been remarkable. The products are indeed viable.

“We progress by leaps and bounds,” reported an industry spokesman. “Leaps and bounds,” he repeated — to make sure I “got it.” (“Heh, heh, heh,” I said.)

The products are robots, specifically cute little animal-like robots. Sony has one called AIBO. It does all kinds of cute things. It even leaps and bounds. And it wouldn’t dream of crap­ping on the floor.

Toymaker Tomy Co. has developed a robot with artificial intelligence that is capable of rec­ognizing words in a conversa­tional context. For example, a woman might say, “I’m going on a date with him tonight,” and the robot, recognizing the word “date” and “him,” would con­firm the man’s name and respond with a question such as, “Where will you go?”

(I can see it now. “I wasn’t anywhere near her last Thursday, Your Honor.” “Really? Let’s just ask Mr. Tomy about that.”)

NEC Corporation has come up with a PaPeRo, a cute little nebbish with big eyes and a squat little body that can recognize and speak hundreds of phrases and, get this, even identify faces. (“Your Honor, PaPeRo-chan is just a bundle of wires and circuit boards…”)

These crea­tures are touted as wonderful companions without the attendant prob­lems caused by real pets and/or other human beings. The sick and elderly are particularly invig­orated by having these bundles of electrodes cat­erwauling about the place.

Robots do real work too. We all know that automobiles are assembled by sober and well-behaved machines programmed to make little errors along the way so as to impart a sense of “humanity” in the process. (We all had a big chuckle about that when the motor in my Nissan March fell to the ground because the engine mounts had been installed incorrectly. I kid you not. It was as if some real guy named Watanabe had been dis­tracted at that stage of assembly. Made me feel better.)

They are using a robot named SAM in some cities in the States to lay fiber-optic cables underground. SAM – Sewer Access Module – goes places humans fear, or are unable, to tread. No complaints from SAM, a creature made in Zurich, but then maybe he hasn’t mas­tered the language yet.

Experiments with robots have not all been a success. The most ambitious scheme involved the former Vice President of the United States, Al Gore. The AL GORE machine was pro­grammed to run for elected office, but problems cropped up early.

Most difficulties involved the coordination of “motor reflex­es.” The AL GORE model could be wheeled out before the cam­eras went on for debates and appearances, but then there was the problem of getting him off stage at the conclusion of the fes­tivities. He tended to walk into walls and bounce off posts with his expression never changing and his arms remaining resolute­ly at his side.

The AL GORE bent over once on a podium to kiss his wife and his “Return To Erect” pulley jammed. The result was his “Emergency Upright” modem had to be activated which in turn led to a burnout of his humility chips. (“The moon and the stars above? I invented them.”)

The MORI MODEL is today probably the most renowned robot in the world. Oddly enough many people did not recognize he was a machine at first – a credit to his designers and operators, I suppose. It was thought initially that he was just another LDP thug pushing his way to the forefront within minutes of his predecessor’s passing. (It was said he was cleverly fashioned to look like a robot, thereby allaying any suspicion he might in fact be a robot. The square head threw many people off.)

Little errors in design and certain weaknesses of compo­nents have come to the surface however. That is perfectly understandable. The science of robotics is indeed developing by leaps and bounds – as we speak, so to speak.

The “Golf Is A Game Of Eighteen Holes Unless The World Comes To An End” chip has been modified to contem­plate other events that might allow the activity to be aborted early. And the “Wait A Beat Before Blurting Out The First Impulse” chip has been upgrad­ed to prevent overrides caused by power surges arising in deal­ing with world leaders.

The problem, of course, is in the installation of “Internal Cen­sorship Modems” and who writes the programs. The histo­ry textbook crowd? Party regu­lars outside prison? Party regu­lars inside prison? Farmers? Bureaucrats? You and me?

Whatever happens, new leadership is coming to Japan. The robots are being upgraded. And they’ll no longer even dream of crapping on the floor.