A singularity in time

Sept. 1, 2008
The future may be an extension of the past, except with androids hard at work

The future may be an extension of the past, except with androids hard at work

Several years ago, when both my son and I were a lot younger, we decided to watch Tim Holland’s movie “The Langoliers” (www.imdb.com/title/tt0112040). This made-for-TV movie’s basic premise is that people on an aircraft can go back in time. Having arrived in the past, the intrepid heroes discover that time itself—in the shape of the airport at which they have landed—is being eaten away by big teethed balls whose only task is to devour the future. My son and I watched it as New Hampshire storm clouds brought horrendous thunder and lightning to our living room.

After the movie, it was time for bed, and I bid goodnight to my son. As the thundering and lightning increased, I heard a knock on my door. It seems my son did not want to sleep alone during a thunderstorm—especially after watching that movie. Being the wonderful parent that I am, I tucked him safely next to me in a king-sized bed, and we watched the storm rage outside.

He was nearly half-asleep when the next lightning strike occurred, and, trying to be funny, I shouted, “The Langoliers are coming.” My son was startled and scared. Unfortunately, with a quick elbow reaction to my face, my son rendered me with a nose that poured so much blood that I had to retreat to the bathroom for half an hour to recover. It was my fault, of course.

But the singularity in time brought by that event and others brings me to the subject of this editorial. Every once in a while a certain singularity in the development of technology brings us to a new point in time. In the 1960s, for example, this was the invention of the transistor and replacement of old tube-based (that is, valve, for our European readers) technology that drastically changed everything from computer science and health care to automation and automotive systems.

Today, there is a new singularity on the horizon. And anyone who has watched the “Terminator” movies will know what I mean. It is not in itself a singular development but a conglomeration of singular developments that will bring about this change. It is an exponential-exponential effect of Moore’s law!

To develop fully functional robots that can speak, hear, listen, touch, lift, and walk in a human manner is a gargantuan task and invokes far more than machine vision. To create such systems demands a certain culture that is, it seems, prevalent in the both the USA and Japan. Leveraging mechanical, electromechanical, electronic, and computer-based systems, developers here and in Japan are looking to develop fully automated robots that will prove beneficial to mankind in a number of ways.

Living proof

In the USA, Vecna Technologies is already working on its Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot (BEAR), designed to replace the role of the medic on the battlefield (see “3-D imaging navigates robots,” page 18). Researchers at Honda in Japan are working on their next generation of Asimo robots that are designed to replace the drudgery currently associated with certain types of work being performed by human beings. In fewer than 20 years, you may be able to purchase an android that looks and feels like a human being.

If you need proof of my argument, go no further than http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MY8-sJS0W1I&feature=related. There, a researcher demonstrates his female android capable of reading and of face and object recognition. If you don’t like the scenario that follows, you are not alone. At the end of the interview, the US interviewer asks, “What happens after the point of the singularity—everything will then change?” And it is there the video ends.

What does indeed happen to mankind after I employ two US or Japanese robots to write my articles, cook for me, and perform my every whim? I only hope that their batteries don’t run out halfway through.

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Andy Wilson, editor
[email protected]

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