Saturday, July 08, 2006

Honey, I'm home!

The word on the technostreet is that the robots are coming.

Oh, yeah, we have robots now that vacuum our homes, put automobiles together, and even perform surgery. In fact, a surprising amount of the stuff we buy has been made by machines acting more or less independently.

But I'm taking now about robots that might more properly be called humanoids, or androids, such as the waxy creatures you met in Spielberg's AI. Game technology, movie animation, prosthetics research, distributed computer processing, and advances in artificial intelligence are merging to make the time not far off when you might find yourself on a bus sitting across from a person who looks just a little bit -- well, synthetic. Pray it doesn't get off at your stop.

I met the Sony robot dog once. Not exactly the pet I'd want around the house, but at least this pooch wasn't programmed to yap at my heels when I'm riding my bike.

If Hollywood movies are a reliable guide, the real honest-to-god humanoids will initially be programmed mostly for sex and violence. Your own personal fun partner waiting in sleep mode for you to come home from work. Robocops on the streets of Baghdad.

This month the Institute of Intelligent Systems for Automation in Genoa, Italy, will publish a guide to robot ethics. Security, safety and sex will apparently be the primary concerns. How intelligent should we let robots become? How do we keep them from running amok? Do robots have rights?

"My guess is that we'll have conscious machines before 2020 with human levels of intelligence," says Ian Pearson, a futurologist with BT (British Telecom), quoted recently in the London Sunday Times.

Are we ready for this? Not me. I was spooked by the Sony poodle.