Tyrades! It Doesn't Take A Robot Scientist

Friday, April 17, 2009

Events have coincided with machine-like timing. Just as my son Gideon was discovering Dr. Smith and the Robot on DVDs of the 1960s TV series "Lost In Space," Reuters news service reported that Aberystwyth University in Wales has built and tested a revolutionary robot named Adam. Adam is the first robot in history to come up with a hypothesis, plan experiments, reason about his results, and plan the next steps.

The scientific community should be glad that the Welsh didn't go with their original plan and construct a robot Tom Jones. ("Well, she always knows her place/Integrated circuits on her face/She's a winner/She's a lady, whoa whoa whoa/A cybernetic lady...")

Heck, Adam isn't even humanoid in appearance. FOX News reports that Adam takes up as much space as a small van and makes over 200,000 observations a day. My friend Ralphie says that description reminds him an awful lot of his mother-in-law.

There's no word on the physical appearance of the next Aberystwyth robot. National Geographic News (which was devastated that the Adam breakthrough occurred in Wales, because it could have really sold some copies with photos of topless African robot scientists) reports that she is more powerful and her name is Eve. Ostensibly, she will study tropical diseases. I suspect she will secretly launch a program to figure out why she earns only 70 cents on the dollar compared to Adam.

After Eve, the next planned milestone is to program robot scientists to laugh all the way to the bank with research grants for proposals like "South Carolina tree frogs who encounter 18-wheelers: why is their reproduction rate so low?"

Researchers hope that the robots will take over routine, tedious number-crunching work so human scientists can look at the Big Picture of the data and solve problems such as greatly extending the human lifespan. Be careful what you wish for. ("Yup, I've been in this nursing home since I was 130. It's not so bad -- except for the ROUTINE and TEDIUM!")

I have my doubts that a class of scientists who came up without the normal human influences of name-calling, wedgies, and pocket protector recall notices will be able to understand the Human Condition. Someday one robot scientist will say to another, "Ah, it's just a FLESH-eating virus that got out. We'll look for it tomorrow. I need to drop by the store and get some rust remover before the Isaac Asimov memorial party."

Cooperation between humans and robots is not being taken for granted. The South Korean government, which hopes to have a robot in every home by 2020, is also drawing up a code of ethics to prevent human abuse of robots, and vice versa. I'm afraid there are already humans who dream of exploiting the robots, keeping them pickin' algorithms, makin' little robots, and singin' robot spirituals.

Researchers gush about the prospects of humans and robots someday working side by side in the lab. I think they should be segregated - or the humans should be very, very specific about passing on instructions. Otherwise you'll hear things like, "*Bzzztt! Sorry about the way I misinterpreted your instructions to 'sterilize everything in the laboratory' Dave. I *click* *whirr* bet you and Mrs. Dave can always adopt."

Note: Danny Tyree welcomes e-mail at tyreetyrades@aol.com.