In reality. lngs believes we are unlikely to install computers in our heads as matter of course. even if we were able to. Why bother when a powerful PC can already be held in the palm of your hand'.’ 'A sophisticated. biological display is much more useful than a calculator implanted in our brain.’ he says. ‘Who wants to be a chess computer? What we might want to do is design a better eye or ear.’
Professor Peter Cochrane. head of research at BT and a man paid to think far-out thoughts. is absolutely convinced that robots and computer- enhancement of the body will become a fact of life if we are to develop. ‘Natural evolution is very slow due to chance mutation and external
‘Who wants to be a chess computer? What we might want to do is design a better eye or ear.’
pressure.’ he reports in an e—mail exchange. ‘Our wet-ware [techie jargon for the brain] cannot grow more than another Ill—15 per cent in volume and moreover we can‘t access the underused bits. liven if we did. its insignificant compared to the exponential evolution in technology. We have no option — we have to evolve or die.‘
In Glasgow University‘s mechanical engineering department. researchers are
considering less theoretical questions in relation to robots. The issue there is how to make them do existingjobs better. and jobs that can‘t yet be done. In a grubby machine workshop. in total contrast to the pristene. brilliant white of Edinburgh’s A.l. labs. a series of muscular robot arms are cutting. lifting and welding lumps of sheet metal using lasers and brute force. They are what you might call the working class of the robot social strata.
Interestingly. Dr Ian Watson of the department regards robots as the mechanical bit. with any intelligence residing in the computer control. Get on the wrong end of a left hook from one of these mechanical arms and you would know about it. but in fact their presence is somewhat far less threatening than the possibilities of a Gillespie-style robot which could eventually chase you across the room. ‘We tend to regard a robot as something that cart perform repetitive tasks automatically.’ says Watson. ‘We‘re primarily looking for useful applications.‘
Automation is already an accepted part of manufacturing. which is a blow to those who have lost jobs to robot spot-welders. but it doesn‘t seem fundamentally wrong. What has become apparent from the progress made in automation is that it doesn’t actually change our way of life much. The eagerly anticipated ‘leisure revolution’. after which people would no longer have to work 40-hour weeks. still looks a long way off. As Dr Peter Mowforth. one of the Robotix 96 organisers says: ‘The idea was that we would have lots of spare time as robots filled the factories. It would be a kind of steel-collared workforce to liberate us. but in fact it‘s quite the opposite.‘
That issue seems far more pressing than whether it‘s possible the androids could ever turn nasty on us. but then it wouldn‘t make for such entertaining movies.
Robotix 96 is at Barony Hall, University of SII'(lI/1C[_\‘d(’ on Friday 15 and Saturday 16 March. Call 014] 242 8234 fm'furtlzer details.
ROBOTIX 96 FEATURE
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Czech writer Karel Capek first coined the word robot in his 192I play R.U.H. to describe a mechanical worker. Five years later the theme of automation was taken up in Fritz Lang's classic dystopian vision ofthe future Metropolis where workers become slaves to the industrialised state. The female robot Maria is created in the image of the popular heroine to quell :1 workers' revolt.
Robots in fiction have typically been cold, heartless machines, frequently called upon to do the bidding of men whose ambition is to take over the world. Dr Who‘s arch-enemies the Cybermen sported a neat line in silver wellies but hated gold dust. The Daleks were similarly a merging of bio-engineering who were virtually unstoppable until they ran across a flight ofstairs. '
The weakness of Terminator. another half-man, half-machine with an evil streak. turned out to be a soft spot for children who melted his silicon heart. A tongue-in—cheek take on nuclear families of the future came courtesy of the Smash robots who could think of nothing better than shovelling a plate of rehydrated potato product into their gaping mouths.
Almost as cuddly were the robotic double-act from the Star wars films. 3202 and C3P0. who ~. biekered their way through a series of inter- galactic adventures. The fictional robot's transformation, from automated drudge to perky personality with feelings. was complete. The real robots have some catching up to do. (Eddie Gibb)
The List 8-21 Mar I99615