Friday, March 19, 2010

Technology II: State of an Art

For today's exercise, please read the following passage and give the question at the end a sincere and thoughtful rumination. Once you feel you've thoughtfully ruminated enough, watch the video.

Imagine a modern machine, one that could be called a robot, that consists of a three fingered hand mounted at the end of an arm with a range of motion similar to our own and a single camera. Given the present state of technology, which any sensible person would describe as "quite advanced," what might this arm to be capable of?

It is astounding, yes, no less should have been expected, but there is something a bit backwards about it. Traditionally machines are constructed and used because they can do some certain task vastly better than we are able to. Naturally the machine's form and means of manipulation don't resemble ours in the slightest, otherwise we'd probably not have needed it in the first place. A good number of years ago, enchanted by the ideas of Isaac Asimov, I had a strong interest in androids--humanoid robots. But even before I knew the beginning of the true technical challenges behind building an android I realized something: a person desiring to make a passable humanoid machine would save themselves a lot of effort and greatly increase their probability of success by doing so the old fashioned way, that is by seeking a viable mating partner and letting nature run its course. At the time the thought was conceived mostly as a joke, and though it's still humorous, it's also quite sensible--practically speaking I think we have more than enough roughly human shaped objects with adequately human like capabilities. Nonetheless it is almost certain that many will continue attempts to build an android, and it's far from difficult to imagine that one day a result could be described as nothing other than successful. However one thing will remain true even then, even when androids exceed our capabilities: the human form can't do everything. No matter how dexterous or sophisticated, our fat fingered mechanical offspring won't be able to manipulate the atoms of a molecule unaided; even less technical, these two handed automatons will have just as much trouble as we doing the work of three hands. This will be a small victory for three handed people as they will get to remain not yet obsolete longer than the rest of us, at least for the few moments it takes to add one more hand to the robot. All silliness aside (well ok just most of it), there's clearly a huge number of tasks which won't benefit from the superhuman but still human capacity of these imaginary androids unaugmented. This represents a significant relief since we aren't stuck waiting for these super androids to come along (which nonetheless probably isn't too far off, though given the rate of technological progress, relatively probably quite a ways off). In summary, I've basically stated in a very roundabout way that we are free to continue to augment our own similarly limited mechanics the same as we have since the invention of the first tool; we can use our already inconceivably sophisticated body of technology to extend and enhance our capabilities. Case and point, the da Vinci surgical robot. Surgeons are essentially required to have superior motor control as even the slightest irregular movement could result in a fatality. However, no matter how talented the person holding the knife with intent to open you up, there is a fundamental biological limitation to the amount of accuracy they are capable of. Rather than just hoping their home life isn't distracting them and that their cup of coffee wasn't abnormally strong that morning, the da Vinci confers peace of mind with a laundry list of features specifically designed to maximize precision by counteracting the inherent imprecision of human hands. There are over 700 worldwide, and though it is only approved for a limited number of procedures, the number is expected to continue increasing as rapidly as it has been. While it's already on it's second version, I think it's a safe bet that further enhancements will be rapidly forthcoming. Of course, the proof is in the numbers, and the numbers are unambiguous--given the choice between traditional and robot assisted surgery, choose the latter! Here's a video of it peeling a grape on live television:

In conclusion, I'm compelled to once again say the same thing I've said previously: over the past few decades in particular we've been developing foundational technologies. Because each of these have such vast potential for application, the first and most obvious few applications took hold and found success. Being as we are focused on a multitude of things wholly different from the vastness of yet unrealized and incredible possibilities that these technologies enable, it is natural to unconsciously assume that what we see is more or less the extent of what technology can offer, but this tacit assumption is, in my opinion, absolute rubbish. In particular the most overlooked and underutilized technology is cheap and powerful microprocessors; everyone knows that desktop processors keep getting more powerful without getting more expensive, but the bit of interest is that the processors of yesteryear continue to get smaller and cheaper. This fact in itself isn't unacknowledged, actually there's a well known meme that suggests a common calculator found in a high school today has more processing power than the space shuttle that delivered the Apollo astronauts to the moon and back. The overlooked bit is that that little processor can do an awful lot more than help with algebra homework. Like what? Well, I have a video demonstration of one such device, but before you watch it consider that the processor in the device shown is essentially as powerful as a 1986 state of the art desktop that cost $6500 (the Compaq Deskpro 386), can be had for around $3, and is smaller than a dime. The whole device could probably be made wholesale for under $10.

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