Risky business. (robotics for hazardous environments, includes related article)
by Howard Millman, Sherry Roberts
HELP WANTED: Dedicated employee to clean up life-threatening chemical spills, patrol leaking underground radioactive waste tanks, and launch single-handed assaults on armored vehicles in enemy territory. Benefits include frequent battery recharging, the very latest in artificial intelligence, neural network and expert system programs, along with the infinite gratitude of humans spared from filling these roles.
Scientist call robots that do this kind of work smart. In this case the word smart has far less to do with common sense than with computerized intelligence used to make high-level decisions. Long the darling of science fiction writers and movie producers, robots have traditionally been portrayed as intelligent machines performing work too dangerous or too dull for humans. Despite these decades-old prophecies, however, totally independent robots still exist only in fiction and the minds of visionaries.
One realist, Dr. Reinhold C. Mann, director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Intelligent Systems Section, believes that continued advances toward creating autonomous robots require much more exploration of the ways a machine's mind is trained: "We have not yet solved the learning problem. We still need to achieve a more humanlike performance from robots." Mann believes one way to solve the learning problems is to find a way for an older generation of robots to teach the younger generation.
In addition to the formidable technical obstacles of creating a practical machine intelligence, emotional issues also impede progress. Many people hold to the once widely popular Hollywood concept that robots, in league with malevolent computers, could destroy the world, enslave humanity, or produce widespread unemployment as machines replace humans. Paul Klarer, robotics software engineers for Sandia Laboratory, disputes that concept. "We need to get the word out that robots are designed to help. They will not take away their jobs, but they will keep people out of the line of fire." says Klarer.
Since robots are, after all, merely expendable machines and will never possess a sense of self-preservation, they can be used to spare humans from performing society's dirtiest, most dangerous work. Each of the robots shown in the accompanying photographs exists for just that reason--to keep people out of harm's way.