Navy building firefighting android
Humans are not very efficient.
We are super-adaptable…if you don’t know whether you are going to need something to blow out a birthday candle or swing a baseball bat, you definitely want a human. Oh, you could build a robot that could blow out candles better or swing that bat better, but it would be built to do that one thing.
Humans can also make decisions better than anything else…if the question is constantly changing.
But if you need the same thing done (and/or evaluated) over and over again, go with a robot.
Humans are expensive to replace. Humans get bored and inattentive. Humans spend an awful lot of time, energy, and focus on relating to other humans.
If you needed to put out fires that randomly appeared on a football field with no other factors (like kids or dogs running into the danger zone), a robot would be a better bet.
There are firefighting robots now, if you consider any automated system a robot. Many offices have sprinkler systems…they decide there is a fire, and squirt water on it. That does cause problems sometimes (when they water computer equipment, for example), but it’s better than paying human firefighters to just hang out in every room waiting for something to happen.
The navy wants firefighting robots for ships. They could put out fires without getting tired or putting the lives of human firefighters at risk.
However, there is a problem.
Ships are built for humans. They have narrow little hallways and ladders you climb. There are things to turn to open doors. In fact, doors are largely for human privacy…that’s important, but awkward for robots. An efficient firefighting robot could be built that was sort like a Roomba: it would roll around with an extinguisher and fire sensors, and put out the flames.
But it couldn’t climb a ladder or turn a doorknob.
So, it makes some sense to build robots that look like humans…what geeks call “androids”.
They don’t have to look just like us, but buildings are built for bipedal entities that can read signs and push buttons. We could build buildings that were robot accessible as well…but that’s a lot of retrofitting. Many buildings aren’t even wheelchair accessible (at least not all parts of them).
The U.S. Navy is going to spend about $2 million a year for three years building a prototype humanoid firefighting robot…hmmm, was a “Six Million Dollar Man” really just a coincidence? 😉
I’m reading a book right now (on my Kindle, of course) called We, Robot by Mark Stephen Meadows.
One of the points it makes is that form leads function in the case of android design. We know what we want an android to look like (including how it moves and interacts) but we don’t really know what we want it to do. That’s the opposite of normal design. Somebody didn’t build the first ladder because it looked good and then say, “Hey, we can use this to get higher!”
While that’s true, human-built environments and tools are intended for humans. There are much better nail-driving devices than a hammer…but what do you have in your house? A household android needs to be able to use our stuff…or we need to rebuild our homes and our tools for robots. If we do, that means we become dependent on them.
We can physically adapt to robot-meant things probably better than they can adapt to human-meant things. Those pesky psychological points make it hard, though. Would you be willing to do away with bathroom doors to make it easier for robots to get in there to clean the toilet? Probably not…we want that privacy. That means robots need to deal with doors…which means they need to be able to use the same things we do…which probably means looking like us.
There are a few sources for money for innovative technological devices. The entertainment industry is one. We’ll pay a lot of money to be entertained.
The Microsoft Kinect system is economically viable because it may be bought by millions of gamers. Now that’s it’s here, though, it may be used by the medical profession to measure range of motion. It may give the disabled avatars.
The iPad was made to give portable web interactivity…entertanment as well as productivity. However, it’s proving useful as a communications tool for autistics.
The military is another good source of R&D (Research and Development) money. They get funded, and staying ahead of the other side technologically has been seen as a goal since before the long bow.
Will this research give us home androids? Not at first…but you might see a firefighting robot climb up a fire escape in New York, open a window, step over the ledge, and spray fire retardant in the apartment. It may ask the residents if they are okay, and use its own communication system to let them talk to paramedics who are safely outside for triage.
We aren’t going to rebuild our cities to be robot-friendly, any more than we rebuilt them to be Segway-friendly (which is what we heard might happen before the device was revealed). Humanoid robots may be the best solution.
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog.