In 1997, Deep Blue played a series of chess games against Gary Kasparov, the world champion at the time. Fourteen years later, Watson competed on three episodes of Jeopardy against the two best human players of all time.
Machines: 2; Humanity: 0.
What will be the next game or televised competition to be conquered by machines, unseating their human creators? Checkers and Wheel of Fortune would probably be too easy. Competing on The Bachelorette might be a little too hard. But what about Dancing With the Stars?
For those of you who don’t know, we’re coming to the end of National Robotics Week. To celebrate, I took a little robotics tour, and I wanted to share some of the amazing things I saw.
This started with me walking past a robot receptionist. Believe it or not, that wasn’t part of the robotics festivities; I work next to a building that has a full time robot receptionist as an every day thing. Yes, my life is more awesome than yours.
I then attended a robot slalom race, which consisted of a series of time trials to see which robot could navigate a course of wickets the fastest without going off track, getting lost, or exploding. There was surprisingly little gambling involved, which gave me a business idea for next year’s competition.
After the race, I saw a robot kayak, which apparently has all sorts of non-recreational uses you’d never think of. Navigating and exploring storm systems currently at sea (but which are headed for land) has some uses, and they’re also teaching seafaring robots to follow other seafaring objects (example usage of this ability: you could use these things to keep tabs on pirates). The underwater versions, by which of course I mean robot submarines, have some other interesting applications as well. I thought they had some excellent applications in researching and getting population estimates for sea life, and commercial fishermen would find their ability to locate and follow underwater objects invaluable. A member of the design team–who also works for NASA on occasion–told me he’d figured out a way to use these robots to exponentially increase our ability to enforce environmental regulations (anyone illegally dumping anything into a river could be easily found out by these robots in situations that would stump a traditional investigation). Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, being able to secretly follow objects underwater with robots will give rise to a whole new branch of awesome submarine movies (plus military applications blah blah blah).
Next up, I got to see two Robocup teams in action. Robocup is the World Cup of Robot Soccer. There are different divisions, and I got to see a Small Size scrimmage and a Humanoid skill drill. The smaller robots are about the size of cantaloupes and the play with a golf ball. The humanoid robots are a bigger, and decidedly less speedy and agile. I thought it was interesting that in the non-humanoid classes, robotic design is a big part of the challenge, while on the humanoid side, the robots themselves are standard and it’s a programming challenge–no small task itself (teaching the robots to recognize where the ball is, what the other players are doing, coordinating plays, staying balanced while kicking, playing defense, etc.). I don’t think today’s English Premiere League players need to worry about facing the same fate as Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, but their kids might not want to go pro until they secure a degree in accounting, or, you know, computer science.
The last stop on my whirlwind tour of the robot world–which, by the way, all took place within a five minute walk from my office, mostly in basements and garages (I had no idea there were so many robots underfoot!)–was a hydraulic humanoid robot that could mimic human movement through motion-capture technology. It’s not a quick or easy learning process, but it is already learning how to dance. I met a PhD student who’s working on adding the chicken dance to its repertoire. I don’t want to spend a lot of time describing this, because it really defies explanation. But don’t worry, at some point in your life, you just might see a descendant of the robot I met on Dancing With the Stars…