Tag Archives: ask a scientist

Calkins on Robots

David Calkins spoke at this month’s Ask a Scientist about robots. With infectious enthusiasm, he gave a brief overview of how robots have developed, how they’re used today, and what’s likely to happen with them in the near future. “This is Ask a Scientist – not Hear a Scientist Go On and On,” he said, and took loads of questions, all of which he answered with thought and style. And he closed with a delightful show and tell of soccer-playing, cartwheel-turning robots – you know, models that prove and demonstrate useful robotic strategies.

If you think about this stuff at all, the early part of the presentation was familiar ground. We’re not talking about automobile assembly arms or the Terminator series, but Calkins clearly focused on robots doing real work and on humanoid robots. Robots are already allowing physicians to practice some remarkably sophisticated medicine at a distance, including procedures, and remote-control devices reach even further, with several devices exploring Mars today. Back home, dishwashers, Roombas, and other household devices will, he says, continue to populate our homes and handle more of such straightforward tasks. And yes, homes can expect to keep featuring, for the most part, many single-purpose devices rather than being run by magically balancing, multipurpose Rosies.

What’s next? Is it only a matter of time before SkyNet becomes aware? Calkins says no; he believes that robots will never be alive, although they will continue to have their capacities for emulating human interaction refined. Because humans like that. He’s up front that ethics is a big issue for robotics, though. One of the most interested parties in robotics development is the US military, and if killing at a distance, say, by dropping a bomb from a plane, is a little “too easy,” psychologically speaking, how about killing at a distance where your interaction with your targets is represented on a screen? Not unlike a video game – right down to the operator being at little to no personal risk.

This isn’t Asimov’s-laws stuff. Does your Roomba need know you’re human, let alone have a working definition of harm? But robots that are in a position to intervene around humans can’t use overly simple rules like “do no harm;” they may have to manage, or accurately screen for human input, issues like “which figure in this room is the hostage taker?” At a time when robots can’t generally tell a cardboard cutout of Princess Leia from the real thing, a big dose of humane thinking has to stand between a robot and a robot carrying weapons.

The biggest limits on robots in the immediate future, says Calkins, are mainly about batteries, although ethics guidelines are a big need. He sees a lot more robotics being used in medicine, naming increasingly sophisticated control of prosthetics as a promising area. He wonders aloud whether people will start lining up for prosthetics as they become better (stronger, faster) than original human equipment. He sees this as a 10-year concern, although it’s hard to imagine medicine moving quickly enough to make prosthetic placement easy enough on the part of the body where a device is attached to make elective amputation attractive.

And then there’s just plain fun. Calkins is the founder of “the only event in the world that both Geeks and Jocks agree on:” RoboGames. “It’s kind of like a weird family reunion,” says a participant in a short video posted at the website. The single-minded focus and engineering ethos of participants – taking what they have and making what they need … or really really want – helps illuminate some of the cultural reasons that this is an area that is big on working models and light on formal policy statements. “Real men don’t have hobbies – they have obsessions.”

Robots! This Week in San Francisco

The human love affair with robots dates all the way back to ancient Greece, whose lore told that Hephaestus made a man of bronze to defend Crete. They are splendid screens for our projections, for our fantasies and fears, and populate countless works of fiction, opinion, proposal, and speculation. In real life, robots pick up dog hair and assemble cars and stuff.

Ask a Scientist: This coming Wednesday, David Calkins will talk about artificial intelligence and real-life applications of robotic technology. Also, he’s bringing along some ROBOTS! The format is a medium-length talk followed by a question-and-answer session. Ask a Scientist is held at the Axis Cafe, which serves light meals, coffeeshop drinks, beer, and wine. Get there early if you want a seat at a table.

Wednesday, August 6th, 7:00 PM: Robots, David Calkins, at Ask a Scientist

Down to a Science: Professor Goldberg is investigating questions raised by robots and social networks. His group is interested in leadership, group discovery, and the power of crowds. The format is a brief talk by the expert followed by a highly interactive question-and-answer session. Down to a Science is held at the Atlas Cafe, which serves coffeeshop drinks, and soups, salads, sandwiches, and pizzas. Get there early to get a seat – this venue is small, and it attracts more people than it has chairs.

Monday, August 18th, 7:00 PM: Robots and Representational Democracy, by Ken Goldberg, at Down to a Science

The Long Now Foundation: If robots are a little too concrete for you, there’s the Long Now talk Friday at Fort Mason about software bots. Daniel Suarez, author of thriller Daemon and a software developer, will give a talk about the growing use of these bits of programming – and the risk of unintended consequences as we use them more frequently for more tasks. The Long Now talks are extended, relatively formal talks, in an auditorium. The talk itself will likely be more than an hour, and Long Now talks in general focus on long-term thinking (the organization’s mission is to work within a framework of 10,000 years).

Friday, August 8, 7:30 PM: Bot-mediated Reality, by Daniel Suarez, at the Long Now Foundation


Though you cannot fully know yourself, make an effort to detect your biases

Juliana Gallin hosts a monthly science cafe in San Francisco called “Ask a Scientist,” in which local members of the science community give a brief talk on a topic of interest to them and then field questions. It’s not always the speaker’s main focus, as in May of this year, when Berkeley vision scientist Ariella Popple spoke about broader issues of sensory perception, but the subjects are always interesting, and Gallin has built an appealing series with her curiosity and instinct for producing.

Wednesday night, the subject was “Native science,” and two speakers shared the stage: Rose von Thater-Braan and Isabel Hawkins. Thet worked together at Berkeley, where they met in the 90s. Hawkins is a research astronomer, and von Thater-Braan is a little harder to pin down. She seems to be a combination educator and corporate coach, but the CV published at her website is more of a biographical sketch, and it’s not immediately clear exactly what her path was to administration in a Berkeley astrophyics program (until 2000).

Nominally, Wednesday’s talk was about indigenous peoples’ methodologies for developing knowledge bases and how the Western approach to science can gain from a culturally competent understanding of those methodologies. So far, so good. But the result was an unhappy freighting of some words and insufficient precision with others that made it hard to take claims seriously. “The seriousness of environmental issues, a language bridge provided by the quantum world and the existence of a generation of Indigenous [sic] scholars has [sic] fueled the confluence of native and western epistemologies and revealed an emerging vision of a 21st century scientific paradigm.” So begins von Thater-Braan’s description of her Native Science Academy. In the course of the talk, “quantum” seemed to be invoked to yoke a supernatural, animist worldview with the hard sciences. “Empiricism is a first-order approximation [of indigenous science],” notes Hawkins, but von Thater-Braan steps in to stay that this observational foundation relies not only on the conventional senses but on the “metaphorical senses,” to access the spirit and energy that animate all the matter (and other phenomena) in the universe.

von Thater-Braan is Tuscarora and Cherokee, but most of the native science under discussion was Mayan because of the talk’s focus on astronomy. This lack of unity increased when the questions came out. Did the Mayans, with their superior sky knowledge and calendrical systems, understand that the earth was round? Yes, says one of the speakers. (No effort was made to address the difference between a disk and a sphere.) They believed the earth was a square, says the other. Indigenous science is based in the land, von Thater-Braan says. Except for Polynesian science (navigation), which is based in water. Polynesians could navigate the Pacific without timepieces because they used chants to keep time, says Hawkins. Really? Was this superior to their documented techniques of meshing stellar navigation, ocean current and swell observation, and observations about bird behavior – plus a probably healthy dose of trial and error?

There is a fun, anecdotal way to approach this material, and there is a satisfying, rigorous way. And then there is the way it was approached on Wednesday – anecdotal with some of the vocabulary of rigor. I’m not a scientist; in college I read literature, and my confidence in my conclusions had to be based on something other than experimental data. I have great respect for intuition, and I am comfortable with “science” being used as a bucket for various knowledge bases, without requiring “the scientific method” to be front and center. But I don’t see the value of privileging – in a sphere in which concrete answers are being sought – systems that confuse hypothesis with conclusion, that cannot distinguish between mythology and cosmology. If your “ways of knowing” can’t be tested, then how can you be sure they are illuminating rather than blinding?

Most disappointing to me was an uncritical assumption of heightened environmental awareness on the part of indigenous people, drafting the values of harmony and balance. It’s a view that strikes me as a little ahistorical in its lack of depth and attention to more pressing practical issues of geography and population. It was deepened here, though, into an explicit critique of (implicitly inherently) Western mindlessness and unsustainability, happy to name-drop the quantum without so much as lip service to equilibrium or thermodynamics, or to the elegance of seeking the simplest explanation for the broadest base of phenomena.