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March 23, 2009 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Are you Sarah Connor?


As you might have deduced from my use of the word ‘frak’ in the last science column, I’ve been watching a lot of Battlestar Galactica lately. In case you’re not as big of a geek as I am and have never heard of the show let alone watched it, its central story is a common one. Like HAL, the terminator, and the Cylons in the original 1970s Galactica, the story centres around intelligent machines turning on their human masters, as nicely summed up in the opening credits: “The Cylons were created by Man. They rebelled. They evolved. There are many copies. And they have a plan.” It is totally as exciting as it sounds.

The idea that we might one day create machines with the sort of intelligence and self-awareness to come to understand their slavery and want to escape it (and reflect the destructive nature of their creators by hunting down and killing people in thrilling and inventive ways! Only to be finally defeated by a steely and handsome hero!) is a pervasive one in our pop-culture. So as August 29th 1997 (Judgment Day, duh) has passed, I wondered: are we likely to be overthrown by our robot slaves one day soon? I consulted the internet and compiled the following list of contenders.

Deep Blue was a chess-playing computer that made history in 1997 by beating the human world champion, Garry Kasparov. Chess playing computers are one of the oldest types of artificial intelligence, and have been around since about the same time as digital computers (circa 1950), when they amazed people by being way better than their crappy mechanical predecessors, which sucked at playing chess. If chess playing machines assert themselves, I would imagine they’d be pretty easy to overcome – all we’d need is some bishops to walk in straight lines and little horsies to walk around one square at a time to send chess machines into “does not compute” head-exploding confusion.

A.L.I.C.E was an early chat-bot, who amazed humans with her ability to engage in inane chatter. A.L.I.C.E won the Loebner Prize for the most human-like chat-bot three times in the early 2000s. Chat-bots are far from being convincing yet – if you haven’t had the pleasure, search for an online chat-bot, and have a little conversation. As far as a method for world domination, chat-bots could possibly achieve this via their own version of exploding our heads “does not compute”-style. A world of the frustratingly meaningless chatter of these bots is a Hell I’d rather avoid.

Some of you might know that Vic has its very own paranoid android, Marvin the robot. Victoria students are currently working on, among other cool projects, Marvin’s application as a security-bot. Marvin has voice recognition and speech synthesis software, and can adjust his aggression and assertiveness. In a display of identity confusion, Marvin can say “you won’t like me when I’m angry”. Marvin’s probable method of world domination: intimidating people and confusing them by mixing pop-culture references.

Kismet is an MIT (the Massachusetts one, not the Manukau one) robot that looks a little bit like a skinned furbie. Kismet is designed to simulate emotions, and uses cameras for eyes and microphones for ears. Kismet’s software lets him recognise the emotion of the human corresponding with him, and regulate his own expression accordingly. For example, if Kismet is sad, his ears and eyelids droop, and his mouth turns down. Aww. I refuse to believe that something as cute as Kismet would want to kill people. But then … maybe that’s all part of his plan …

ASIMO is the name of a type of robot created by car manufacturer Honda. ASIMO is humanoid in appearance (kind of like a little astronaut), and can work as a robot bell-boy, carrying bags and giving helpful information about stuff like the weather using his internet connection. The latest version of ASIMO enabled him to better recognise his environment, objects in it (moving and stationary), and the posture and gestures of humans. He can recognise and remember different human faces, and distinguish between different types of sounds. Although ASIMO’s ability to respond to a person’s wave, recognise that person’s face, address her by name, and act in accordance with her directions is pretty amazing, limitations in his range of movements would probably prove his downfall in a domination attempt. I couldn’t find any information about whether or not he’s rubbish on stairs.

So, we’re probably safe for the moment. Phew. However I’m a bit nervous that the internet might get jealous that it didn’t make the list and electrocute me through the keyboard, so I’m gonna end the article here, and start researching possible technologies to defeat the evil robot hoards. Fight science with science! Yeah!


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