Advantage android?

13th November 1998 at 00:00
(Photograph) - There's only one winner in this game. The ping-pong-playing robot - called Sarcoman - is really just a shiny, wired-up version of the man on the other side of the net. So when the white-suited engineer moves, sensors on his body pick up the movement and translate it to his opponent. He calls the shots - and those of the robot.

Traditionally, this master-and-slave relationship is the way we like to co-exist with our robots. They can do our dirty work (building cars and defusing bombs) or entertain us (R2D2 and Robocop), and they won't answer back. Scientists are already developing robots to cut our grass (RoboMow), herd our sheep (RoboShep) and fetch our slippers (RoboDog). Automatons like these are the servants of tomorrow; some people predict they will outnumber us by the year 2020.

But the bottom line with all these creations is that they owe their existence to us and, whatever their abilities, we programmed them. Now, however, some robots are beginning to get frustrated by their battery-powered life of domestic drudgery.

Artificial intelligence - the idea that machines can be made that will think for themselves - was the subject of philosophical ponderings long before computers were the size of caravans. Not everybody is convinced that machines can be capable of conscious action, preferring to see robots as just electronic idiots programmed to do as they are told.

But robots have already been made that can interact, learn from their mistakes, make their own decisions and replicate simple emotions. Mimicking the process of evolution, cyber-neticists can "breed'' them by combining the "DNA'' contained in their strings of circuitry.

At the moment, these "thinking'' robots are bug-like creations that can manoeuvre round a confined space - hardly contenders for masters of the universe.

But their time may come.


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