By Marie Kulik
Three days ago a wide variety of global news services picked up on the following headline: Robot prison guard to patrol South Korean jail.
From Friday 25th November 2011 to Monday 28th November 2011, the story had been replicated a double dozen times across the feedsites and blogging communities of the interweb.
For those who missed it due to spending the weekend all hopped-up on something else, the following was announced:
The South Korean Ministry of Knowledge Economy in partnership with the suitably authoritarian titled research group Asian Forum for Corrections, have spent $850,000 building three 1.5 meter high, four wheel operated, robotic prison guards.
Having almost completed the operating system for the machine, the AFC are now focusing on “refining its details to make it look more friendly”, according to AFC-head Professor Lee Baik-Chul of Kyonggi University.
That is what Lee told the Yonhap news agency anyway.
The friendly looking disciplinarian robots, three of which are set to roam the halls of a prison in Pohang from March 2012, are programmed to notice suspicious, violent or suicidal behaviour and report it to the humans. So sneaking around a corridor before head butting someone and then having a bit of a cry, is going to bring you a robot friend.
Whilst that may sound harmless, if slightly creepy, the progress of the technological sector in the last handful of years is leading to something of a game changer, socially and militarily.
The idea of building a machine to do something that a human can do in a limited capacity is nothing new. One must however see a difference between the first solid weaving machine rocking the world in 1812, leading to a major shift in freeing up man-power and what is coming.
South Korea is unquestionably attempting to lead a robotic revolution, along with everyone else who has realised that robot personnel are the way forward.
In 2006, Samsung Techwin announced the SGR-A1.
A robotic turret that was mounted with a CCTV camera, a microphone and a machine gun, capable of tracking and shooting at humans from 500 meters. For those interested, you can get your hands on one for around $200,000.
Then December 2010 brought us, fresh out of the labs of South Korean defence firm DoDAAM, the Super aEgis II. Essentially the same thing as the SGR-A1, just more of a public liability should someone mount it to a robot brain. The Super aEgis II can find you from 3km (2.2km in darkness), using a thermal sensor, x30 zooming lenses and a laser Range Finder. It will then shoot you to shit with either a .50 Calibre Machine Gun, a 40mm Automatic Grenade Launcher and Surface to Air Missiles. Functioning through all weather and light, it is automated (no human required, much).
Jumping the pond for a moment, the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and IBM are still working toward the ‘Human Level Design’ with the SYNAPSE (Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics) project. SYNAPSE is a five stage project, with the first two phases, ‘Phase 0’ (coming up with the idea) and ‘Phase 1’, (realising that it is not a totally mad or unrealistic idea) completed.
The longer explanation to the point of this is to create a chip capable of processing streams of real-time telemetry and rewiring itself toward adaptation. Sifting through the piles of computer-esque jargon out there, the short explanation of this concept is to create an engineered cat-brain. As in, the brain of a cat.
Phase one, which received $16.1m of funding, consisted of researchers from Stanford University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University, Columbia University Medical Center, the University of California-Merced plus IBM and Darpa folk all working out how to build a cat brain out of manufactured electronic synapses and circuits. The next phase has had $21m of DARPA funding allocated to it.
‘Phase 3’ aims to create a chip with 10 million neurons that can create a false brain functioning at 100 million neurons. ‘Phase 4’, build a robot to stick the brain into.
This is one of a few of these ‘Can we make human / animal brains for robots?’ projects going on at the moment. Seems like the answer is ‘yes’.
So, for those of you who never saw Robocop, or Terminator (or Robocop VS Terminator) and do not remember the Enforcement Droid Series 209, or Skynet, both of which did pretty much the same thing as the prison robot and the Super aEgis II combined, but who went a bit wrong and killed everyone due to its droid-brain meltdown, be ready, watch your cat.
The missing link right now is, are you human once you stick on a prosthetic arm? If you attach a prosthetic leg to match your prosthetic arm is your humanity reduced? No seems to be the answer, as you can not go around claiming that the disabled are less than human. And nor should you.
The word here appears to be ‘disabled’. Japan, South Korea and the United States seem to be pushing, or punching forward with a break-through in prosthetic, nerve attached, limbs. Essentially, robot arms. Or legs.
If a person accidentally catches their arm in heavy machinery and it is replaced with a stationary mannequin arm, are they disabled? Yes. If it is replaced with a robotic arm wired to the remaining sinew and nerve endings, allowing for automated function from brain activity, are they still disabled? Yes, apparently.
When that guy then beats you arm wrestling, were you beaten by a disabled person, or a person with a robotic arm wired to his brain?
So if I go out and request to have my human arm replaced for a robot arm, am I voluntarily disabling myself, or am I just stepping into an inevitable direction? Why not go out and have shoulders that can hold six times the weight of those that you were born with, if it allows for a person to carry six times as much across a construction site?
The arguments against hypothetically switching limbs out of choice seem to be quite flawed. Those that I have come across seem to be either based on ethics, religion or practicality.
Religion goes something like this: “God gave you your body as it is, so you shouldn’t mess with it”. This argument, found from lunatics in watering holes, for those who are not terminally gullible and capable of living each day without finding something sequestered to believe in, would argue that having a piercing or a tattoo does not really constitute social or religious exile. So why would it be different in making a choice for a robotic arm over a human one? The disabled are not struck off (anymore) as heretical social pariahs for adding a limb, or peg-leg.
Morality and ethics appear to be next; it is wrong to alter oneself away from how it was created, for whatever moral issue the confused agnostic stating feels justified. This argument is clearly nonsense unless the next time your grandmother has kidney failure, you take no objection to me berating the medical staff installing a new one.
That leaves practicality. A human arm is probably more adaptable to every day life than a robotic one. For the moment.
If DARPA (who are also in the business of attempting to develop robotic arms that work ‘properly’) and other medical professionals in South Korea and Japan continue to create the future of science and robotics–which guaranteed they will–and it comes to the point where their creation is essentially as useful as your natural one, why not go balls out and get metal genitals, or feet, or a functioning robotic nose (if you can and are that way inclined)?
Again with the DARPA guys, they are onto something with MMEA (Multiple Micro Electrode Array). A small chip to stick in your brain that allows for emotions to be read as RF frequencies. Basically, they have got monkeys moving stuff around by thinking about it.
So in time, to assume that we can not wire a person’s head and torso, plus a variety of organs to four functional metal arms and legs, seems fractionally short-sighted.
If the MMEA chip in a monkey can then control something like the Super aEgis II (I’m just making stuff up now, there is no evidence yet to suggest that this is going to happen), what happens next? As of 2011 we already have bionic-humans, robot prison guards and pseudo-telekinetic primates.
The future of the human race is evidently here, so it might be worth paying attention so that when your grandchildren ask you why your dog could not turn on the vacuum cleaner, you can explain it. Or, like that idiotic man in the bar who told me that his parents thought that there would be flying cars now (there are, they just do not fly for long), ignore it all, keep drinking and play with your new phone. Tin hats for all.