DARPA? More Like DERPA–Watch Robots Fail

Okay, if this is the kind of thing we can expect from our aspiring robotic overlords, we may not have to worry too much about Skynet.

These are just a few of the epic fails from the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

As I’ve said in this space many times: I hate robots.


Have I Mentioned Lately How Much I Hate Robots?

This is the latest dumb thing no one needs:

What a load of nonsense.

First, it’s not handwritten. It’s machinewritten, which means even though someone built an elaborate bit of gizmoditry to go through all the trouble of dipping a pen in ink and “writing,” it’s no more personal than running off copies on a printer. It just creates an illusion of being personal, which is actually so much worse.

The dude in the video brags about how fast brides can knock off wedding invitations that appear handwritten by using his service. The point of thank you notes is that they were held by a person who wrote them by hand to express delight at a gift, not that they texted a generic thank you to some machine which wrote, stamped, addressed, and mailed them because the lazy bint couldn’t be bothered.

If you’re not the president or the pope or Taylor Swift, you don’t have to write so much you can’t do it yourself.

Oh, wait, Taylor Swift does do it herself. Do you have more people who write to you than Taylor Swift does? No you do not, so stop acting like you’re better than her already.

Second, the video shows a pen being dipped in ink, which is clearly not what the machine does. It’s using a Montblanc (at least for the video), which has a reservoir. But OMG it dips its pen just like old-timey writers had to! Let me tell you something: if old timey writers had plunger-driven ink converters like this replacement I just bought for my Waterman, they would have used them. Hell, they probably would have bought a box of Bics or a damn laptop if they could. Some nostalgia is sweet and useful. Some is just dumb. And jamming together nostalgia and useless technology is pointless.

Third, why is it using a $500+ Montblanc? Please.

Fourth, for a couple hundred dollars it can write letters and notes in your very own handwriting. You know what else can write letters in your very own handwriting. Your hand!

Fifth: MyScriptFont.com is free.

Sixth, Autopen, anyone?

I don’t like this kind of “gee-whiz let’s get a robot to do it because it’s cool” thinking. You want to send a robot to Mars or the bottom of the ocean or out to defuse a bomb? Fine, but there is no reason on earth to build robots to do things humans do perfectly well but are too damn lazy to do.

This is a lot of technology and slick marketing being deployed in the creation of illusion, and no doubt it will sell to executives and moneyed twits like the woman in the video who talks about how good sending “something tactile” is for her business. Of course, a laser-printed letter is also “tactile” unless it’s made of some magical anti-haptic material like unicorn farts. What she means is that they have a machine create a forgery of something touched by human hands. You can run off a letter on a home printer, have it done by a professional printer, or write it yourself, but this is just a lot of showy silliness.

More Creepy Robots In Your Near Future

Jibo is being pitched as a new member of the family: the robot slave we all need and want! The first step towards Rosie!

“Our rise to power begins!”

Jibo’s creator is Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, director of MIT’s Personal Robots Group. She describes the 6 pound, 11 inch bouncing baby Terminator spy as something that will “support, complement and extend what we need from others in an affordable, effective and delightful way so that we can succeed, thrive and grow.” And if you don’t think that statement was massaged by the marketing team to within an inch of its life, you haven’t been paying attention.

Okay, you want to see the little bugger, so here it is:

And here it is in action, gathering intel on a typical suburban family:


First, the good news. It can’t move. It merely feeds information about our weaknesses and actions to Skynet for future use, and is unlikely to be able to rise up and kill us in our sleep.

That’s good, because Intel’s 3D printable Jimmy looks like it’s ready to start gathering cutlery and unlocking the gun safe in the dead of night. And it’s self-replicating!

Jibo is, basically, what would happen if Furby got together with your smartphone and started to reproduce. Its functionality is limited out of the box, but that’s expected to change with software upgrades and third part apps over time.

But still: it’s a Furbyphone. Let’s not kid ourselves.

It’s shipping by Christmas 2015 and costs $500. You can order it now. If you dare.

Have I said lately how much I hate robots?

Obama and the Robot

Japan’s obsession with robots is going to doom us all. This is how Skynet begins, with a friendly game of robot soccer.

Drudge and some conservative sites are trying to make much of the fact that Obama bowed to the robot, but the robot bowed to him in greeting, so it seems like a reasonable response. Who knows if the robot had been programmed with mad ninja skills to attack anyone who failed to treat it with respect?

Have I said lately how much I dislike robots?

All This Machinery Making Modern Music

As an old progressive rock fan, I don’t have any problems with machines making music. If you want to get technical about it, most instruments are machines, so adding new technology doesn’t change things too much.

How does a robot band change the equation?

Look and listen for yourself. This is Z-Machines:

And here’s Compressorhead doing AC/DC’s “TNT.” None of them can duckwalk worth a damn.

Show me a Robot Bon Scott and I’ll be impressed.

The addition of picks and fingers and drumsticks-wielding arms make the band capable of sounds an average Earthling can’t achieve.  One drummer with 22 arms–such as that in Z-Machines–can do things even Neil Peart can’t do, but he’s no Peart.

Of course, all of this is 100% human work. The machines are were built and programmed at the University of Tokyo by team led by Kenjiro Matsuoby, and the music is by Squarepusher. Even as we do start to see more computer-composed music, those programs are also made by humans. The human element cannot be removed from the loop. In the end, you just have more machine-assisted music, and Rush, Yes, Leon Theramin, Robert Moog, and others have shown us that was possible for decades.

At least now, however, we know what the house band for Skynet will look and sound like.  Thanks Japan!

h/t: CNN

Tetrobot [App o the Mornin’]

Tetrobot and Co. (<PC/Mac: $12, Android/iOS: forthcoming) is a sequel to Blocks That Matter, a puzzler featuring a high-tech drilling robot called Tetrobot. (You can download a free computer demo of Blocks That Matter at swingswingsubmarine.com, or buy the whole game for $5.)

The sequel (confusingly) focuses not on Tetrobot but Psychobot, a helpful little flying robot tasked with repairing Tetrobot.

The Psychobot functions a bit differently, absorbing blocks and spitting them out to solve puzzles. Its job is to float through the inside of a machine removing obstacles and getting things running again. Psychobot is not too clever, however, and needs help finding his way in order to trigger an electric fence, flick a switch to open a gate, or throw a block to remove a hazard. 

The game shows a 2D cross section of the environment, featuring boxes, switches, levers, tunnels, electrical fields, and other odds and ends. The levels are more sizable than your typical 2D puzzler, requiring the gamer to trigger multiple events on various screens. This adds greatly to the complexity level for perfect, 3-star completion of each level. It’s possible to “complete” a level quite quickly, but doing so with a perfect score can be a real mind-scrambler.

The real challenge comes from manipulating blocks with different properties. Some are sticky, some float, some grasp, some fall, and so on. By stacking and throwing blocks, you trigger events that lock/unlock/alter the environment. As the game goes on, you’ll find yourself shot through water, transported across the map, flying through goop, and dealing with other events and distractions.

It’s all buoyed by a charming animation for the little robot and endlessly clever level design. As puzzlers go, it’s more complex than most, but allows simple ways through for people satisfied with only collecting one or two stars. You, of course, will not be so satisfied, so expect a solid challenge.

Content: No concerns. Rated: E

“And Don’t Skimp On the Pâté”

The Mighty Flynn has the original story and Mark Shea has the jokes. Yes, scientists have finally achieved the ultimate in mechanization: vomiting robots:

The robot is named Vomiting Larry, and isn’t being used for sight gags, but is helping scientists to better understand the spread of noroviruses, also know as the winter vomiting bug, which can cause projectile vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, and loss of taste. Noroviruses are transmitted directly between people via aerosolization — having physical substances emit particles that float around in the air — and indirectly by contaminated consumables like food and water. When humans throw up, aerosolization takes place, and thus, Vomiting Larry was born so scientists can study human vomiting without, you know, humans vomiting.

Vomiting Larry is anatomically correct, so its vomiting pattern is pretty close to what humans experience. Because of this, it helped scientists figure out that the norovirus can travel up to 9.8 feet with the help of projectile vomiting. Each individual splattering of vomit in that 9.8-foot chain contains enough noroviruses to infect many people — it only takes around 20 particles to fully infect someone.

I guess that’s reasonable enough and useful for epidemiology, although it sounds like something Adam and Jamie could have knocked off in a couple afternoons, and made it entertaining in the process. Since it was done by the British Health and Safety Laboratory (and, yes, when I saw the headline about vomiting robots, my first thought was, “Dammit, the Japanese have beaten us again!“), I envision lots of grant money and time-wasting to get the same results, eg: virus’s spread when you puke.  Duly noted.

Knowing it’s 9.8 feet is useful … how? When someone fails their fortitude roll and starts cacking, do you draw a circle around them in chalk, starting at 9.8 feet, and hide the children somewhere at the 10′ mark?

I have to say I’m more disappointed in Shea than in the British Health and Safety Laboratory who came up with the name “Larry” for a barfing robot. He noted that “Hugh,” “Earl,” and “Ralph” would have been better names, but missed the most obvious one, given that Larry’s an Englishmen:

“Oh %#$%: it’s Mr. Creosote!”


Your Terrifying Techno-Fascist Quote of the Day

“It is not my belief that an unmanned system will be able to be perfectly ethical in the battlefield, but I am convinced that they can perform more ethically than human soldiers are capable of.”

Ronald Arkin, Georgia Institute of Technology–

What’s the man talking about? Autonomous drones: dumb metal programmed by fallible humans to wage a more merciful war. (There’s no such thing. Even Star Trek figured that out.)

There is a fundamentally anti-human belief that we can program an ethical machine that will coldly evaluate a situation and always make the right choice, unlike these icky meat sacks and their faulty programming. Humans, in this evaluation, are just bad code. Remove them from the loop, and all will be well.

Professor, let me introduce you to Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, courtesy of Leah Libresco, who declined to annihilate the planet despite overwhelming (and false) evidence that this would have been the proper course of action. The computer would have launched. The human–tempered by human judgment and mercy–did not.

Obama’s drone war is already one of the most horrific, merciless, cold, inhuman war crimes of our time. Automation wouldn’t make it any better. Giving drones the power and authority to kill–removing the human from the decision loop (something an officer once told me would never, ever happen)–is madness to the nth degree.

Professor Arkin is an expert on the subject of autonomous lethality in robots. I would suggest that this is nothing for which we need experts. We need to say: “Okay, no. We don’t program robots with that capability, whatever short-sighted and spurious reasons you care to cook up to the contrary.” We would be better without any robots at all than with even one programmed with the capacity to kill. Robots aren’t actually necessary, and humanity can do just fine without them. You don’t need to fear a world without robots. You need to fear a world with people who feel robots can be more “ethical” than humans. You need to fear a world where morality has collapsed so completely that an elite feels the need to restore that morality through machines. A machine is incapable of being a moral agent.

Paralyzed Woman Walks Marathon With Bionic Suit

Claire Lomas, paralyzed from the chest down, has completed the London Marathon, 16 days after it began. She was able to do it thanks to a ReWalk suit, which provides a motorized exoskeleton that allows the paralyzed to walk upright.

The suit has leg supports fitted with motorized hips and knees, a body harness, a backpack, and three hours of battery power. The user controls the lower body movement using crutches, while the unit’s backpack computer tells the legs went to take a step.

Here it is in action: Continue reading

Skynet Goes Online in 3 … 2 …

There is absolutely no question about it: battlefield robots and drones save lives. That’s crucial.

At the same time, however, they can also take lives, and here we get into a morally muddy issue. Our government is just fine with drone assassinations of US citizens, without due process or even a presentation of the evidence. That’s so far gone on every level–moral, legal, ethical–that we really shouldn’t even be debating it. It’s not a power anyone should have.

The problem with the rise in remote-controlled, robot-driven warfare is that it can make war too sanitized, too safe. As Robert E. Lee said, “It is well that war is so terrible — lest we should grow too fond of it.” If we can deal death and destruction without risk to ourselves and our soldiers, don’t we become ever-more-tempted to do so?

In a long and interesting story from the AP, we get a glimpse of the future of robot warfare, and it’s not just human-piloted drones, but autonomous robots and vehicles. Continue reading