Terminator Salvation came to theaters on May 21st. It sparked an idea in my head about technology in our society and if it’s really possible get to the point of what the Terminator franchise projects for our future.
When I presented the idea to a co-worker, he dissed it immediately. When a scientist or engineer starts to immediately diss the possibility of an idea, it’s a good clue that it might be a good idea for us to wrap our imaginations around. Hence, the birth of this article.
This was going to be a short piece… but unfortunately, like the technology in Terminator, the more I looked into the subject matter, the more the article grew on me. It got bigger than the original idea. It took me over and I found myself inexorably abducted into having to write it.
It became just a wee bit more than it’s original design. Huh? Where have we heard that before?
Technology In Science Fiction
When we watch our favorite Sci-Fi or fantasy movies, we love the idea of what could be compared to what is. Despite the science community who nit-picks the details of science fiction in movies, we’re starting to see more and more real technology or science premises coming out of our beloved movies. Odd isn’t it?
It’s not that odd. Writers are sparked by imagination and are not limited by budgets, funding sources or the hassle of having to actually discover the math that underlies the technologies or premises they pitch.
Generally speaking, the first sci-fi film that predicted something “impossible” was from the French visionary Georges Melies and his milestone 1902 silent sci-fi film, A Trip To The Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune). The general consensus was that it was silly. Well, as we know, it wasn’t, but he was daring enough to envision it and create it.
A popular theme we continue to see is humanity fighting against the odds and fighting against out of control computer programs. We love seeing our heroes prevailing over these obstacles to survive. It also helps that we have super cool stars and awesome music and futuristic ideas that are easily digestible to help us devour the magic of these movies.
And yet science fiction or the imagination of science fiction writers and movie makers seem to pre-echo our real technological achievements or nightmares. But really, give me a break. Perfectly animated humanoid robots standing up against humanity?
Hardware And Software Conjoined To Make Trouble
There are two components to this nightmare: Machines and the software that operates them. Software isn’t that hard to construct. It’s a collection of logic that when run, appears autonomous. Or as I see it, can be instilled pre-learned behavior.
Walk. See Wall, turn. If wall on right, turn left. Else, turn right.
That’s a silly and rudimentary example of software code for a walking robot. I could spend hours writing out all the different options and opportunities just for walking. Or better yet, I could just create logic that would ask the robot to write its own software. It isn’t hard. It’s just a bookkeeping nightmare to create and sort out conflicting code.
In Fritz Lang’s 1930’s science fiction film Metropolis we see one of the earliest imaginations of robots. We’ve seen the autonomous and independent Robby the Robot in one of my all time faves, Forbidden Planet. There was the incredible tale of robot self awareness and growth in I, Robot. On May 21st we saw the ultimate nightmare in Terminator Salvation, where they take 1983’s War Games just a step further with Skynet making it’s tools – machines in the form of different types of robots to kick our own butts.
But really, it’s pretty fantastic. Right?
When Fiction No Longer Is Fictional
Technology is developing at a break neck speed as computer technology continues to develop at what seems to be a faster pace each year. Just “the other day” I thought I was totally cool when I installed a 20 MB hard drive in my advanced XT system! LOL. Now I’ve got some images on my computer that are bigger than that. The technological leaps and bounds are making pretty neat things possible.
There’s a robot called “Rubot” that solves the Rubik’s Cube and when he’s done, he puts the cube down. It’s pretty simple but is that the start of self awareness, when he knows he’s done? Nah, just a subroutine designed to recognize that all sides of the cube are now the same color.
As a programmer myself, I can tell you that the outline or premise of such a set of conjoined programs is not that hard to write. What takes the time are the nuances of getting everything to work together. Shape recognition. Object manipulation. Decision tree responses. Well, you get the point.
The Tartan Racing Automated Vehicle
Forget K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) held a contest called The DARPA Urban Challenge where companies like the one I work for compete for the top award and find out whose car can navigate an urban environment loaded with robot and human-occupied cars on simulated roads.
These cars are set to go and the only control the scientists have are emergency-stop overrides just in case the automobiles go rogue. The Stanford car took 2nd. The Tartan Racing GM truck won this particular contest that these images came from.
Notice the big time sponsors on these vehicles? Everyone is in on it. And despite the big cash prize, I’m betting that DARPA then hired the winning team for future projects that civilians won’t be privy to for some time. Just my guess, but trust me, it’s a well educated guess.
Here, we have robot fish that were set loose and programmed to come together and swim together in a school. Like real fish do by instinct.
Speaking Of Instinct:
This robot “dog” was programmed to walk, and retain its balance. In the above image, the man just gave the robot a pretty good shove with his foot and the ‘bot is adjusting its legs to retain its balance.
This machine is “taught” to stay upright, and through various subroutines, uses its legs in a combination of predetermined moves to keep it upright. If I stretch my imagination towards the doomed future we see in the movies, then for something like this to go awry wouldn’t take to much work for a disgruntled employee to insert a subroutine that says:
If man comes at me
..determine if he will kick me
….if man is going to kick me,
……kick man first
And suddenly, we have troubles at Boston Dynamics.
Then There Is Honda’s ASIMO
Honda has gone outside the realm of automobile building and created a robot called ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility). The development of the ‘bot is fascinating, and the different steps make the perfect evolutionary sense.
The left most model is the first rendition of ASIMO, from 1986, called Model 0. They taught, via programming, this unit to walk. When that was settled, they started to add all the extras.
Then the ASIMO models E3-6 (The legs with toaster heads) came along in 1991. Here, Honda added the function to walk autonomously (The 3rd model from the left with the giant oil can for a head). Next, they showed it how to walk on steps or sloped surfaces (The model with the outboard for a head.)
Then in 1993 the ASIMO P1 came along with the addition of the upper torso. This model could turn electrical switches on and off, grab doorknobs and carry things (The humanoid shape without the fancy outer casing.) In 1996, it went wireless and then in 2000, they created their smaller and compact version of humanity’s demise. Oh goody.
In the above images we’re watching ASIMO as they’ve now been programmed to work together with other ASIMO units, serve people autonomously. At this point, he (or “it”) is autonomous enough to know when to head off to the charging station they built for him and he plugs himself in (Right image).
So once it realizes that it shouldn’t be serving us lunch because it feels superior, we’re screwed. Just Great! It will then break free of its confines and go steal a Toyota for a joy-ride.
Enough fun nay saying doom predictions now that robotic applications aren’t that hard to envision.
Constructive Applications For Robotic Technology Applications
Robots have their obvious advantages. They can be used to sift through rubble for survivors of collapsed buildings, search for explosives fearlessly or go into the battlefield in place of our own troops who risk their lives every day for our country.
Robots also have their allure, as I’m sure some folks would love to have an ASIMO or one of those cool units from I, Robot helping out. Heck, right now I could have one doing the yard work instead of me being yelled at to get off the computer.
But there are other uses here at home.
These exoskeletons help assist disadvantaged folks. The jackets help stroke victims learn to move again by using sensors to monitor muscle movements in a healthy arm and then stimulate similar movement on the damaged side of the body.
Iron Man In Real Life
In the Terminator franchise, Cyberdyne is the Sunnyvale, CA company that ends up creating Skynet. In Japan, a company was started in 2004 using the name Cyberdyne. At first I was suspicious until I found an MSN Tech Gadgets and CNET article talking about Cyberdyne’s product called HAL.
HAL stands for Hybrid Assistive Limb. It is an exoskeleton that can help elderly folk get around and is a commercially available product from Cyberdyne. This exoskeleton is one of the closest things I’ve seen to a real life Iron Man that looks halfway decent. It helps people walk and has the ability to make it so people can lift more than they are normally capable of. Check it out:
Pretty cool. Is there a boot-jet option on HAL?
What Is Coming?
One example of what is coming around the corner is some work that Honda Research Institute Japan Co., Ltd. is doing. Together with Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International and Shimadzu Corporation, they have put together the first ever Brain Machine Interface (BMI) technology that uses EEG and near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) along with newly developed information extraction technology to enable control of a robot by human thought alone.
It’s surprising to me how much is coming out of Honda. Up until now, I thought Honda made cars that lasted longer than time. It’s impressive.
Wrapping This Up
Do I even want to go near the “science” of Star Trek?
Right now we think that we cannot exceed the speed of light because of physics. Or is that the physics we’re only aware of? We have lasers that I’m sure will become something like phasers, and we’ve seen how well transporter technology can go if not done right, IE: The Fly.
I could go on and on with this article and maybe I’ll delve into Star Trek another day.
As it is, I’ve only grazed the surface of what’s out there. I can’t count how many sites and bits I’ve left out of this article. It’s astounding. From tiny robots that work together to airplanes whose computers modify their wing surfaces to counter air turbulence and hovercrafts. Heck, my company is building machines that can climb any type surfaced walls exactly like Spider-Man – it’s crazy what’s out there, and that’s just in the public sector that we know about.
I specified the public sector. We can only imagine what research projects the government has going on now that we don’t know about. And I don’t mean the noise that people think they know.
An example of what could be is the F-117 Stealth Fighter went public in 1988. I was part of one of the many contracted developers that worked on that baby. Its first “successful” flight was in 1981 and the research for that accomplishment started in 1964 and then realized in the mid-70’s due to the advancement of computer developments. The SR-71 went into service in 1966, after the technology started being refined in the 50’s.
Looking at these numbers, I bet some of you have to be wondering just what is in the pipe to go public 20 years from now. It’s crazy, I’m sure.
Movies are a cool realization of what could be and we’re lucky to be able to experience the decent special-effects that computer technology has made possible for us.
So, are we headed to a Matrix existence? (Unless we’re in it now.) And will the Terminator nightmare come to be? It’s an old story, but as science catches up to our science fantasies, it can’t be helped but thought about. I just hope you don’t lose sleep worrying about it!