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Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto!


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THE ROBOTS ARE COMING to San Jose. Throughout this upcoming fine October weekend, RoboNexus, the largest robotics event in the Western Hemisphere, hits the McEnery Convention Center in downtown San Jo (Oct. 6-9). This is a whirlwind party both for academics as well as garage tinkerer types. You can rub elbows with leading pioneers in the industry and drink beer with folks who build machines in their backyards. You'll learn about all sorts of stuff: military applications of robotics, Lego research, servo technology, home-brewed machines and the impact of the Frankenstein Complex on robotics. Inventors from Japan will show off robots that play trumpets. People will speak on a wide variety of topics—everything from networked robotic art to robotic soccer as a teaching tool. Servo Magazine will sponsor a "Hack a Sapien" contest.

Here's just an example of what's in store for downtown San Jose: If you go to the website for the Robotics Society of America (robotics-society.org), you'll find a link to a PR release from Imagination Engines Inc. in St. Louis, Mo., titled "A Fully Autonomous Robot Builds Its Own Brain and Learns From Scratch." The release touts: "For the first time in history, a robot has built its own synthetic central nervous system and then learned not only to walk, but how to autonomously enter and navigate the corridors of complex buildings."

And, of course, the military is interested. The "cyberwarriors" so predicted by science fiction are just around the corner, it seems.

I called up one of my partners in subversion, David Calkins, who just happens to be president of the Robotics Society of America, and asked him if robots are going to take over the world.

"The biggest thing there is that [people] are overanthropomorphizing," he said. "The first thing these hysteric people are presuming is that intelligence equals emotion. And that's not true. Basically, they've been watching too many movies. Whenever any idiot brings this up, there's three basic points that completely refute them. First of all, robots by no means are perfect. Even in 50 years, they're still going to be machines. They break down all the time. They're computers, they're going to crash. Secondly, they need to work out battery-charging issues. Sure, a good robot might be able to charge its own battery, but he won't know where the circuit breaker is, so if you trip the circuit breaker, the robot can't charge. It's going to run down and die. And thirdly, artificial intelligence ... in no way relates to emotion. For robots to take over the world, they must have emotion. And that is different from being self-aware."

Dan Kara, president of Robotics Trends Inc., and one of the conference organizers, said he wasn't worried about it at all. "I do think they're going to become much more cognizant; they'll be a lot more intelligent," he said. "But they won't be machines, they won't be people, they'll be something else."

At the conference, Calkins will give a talk titled "Consumer, Hobby and Competition Robots: What's Available, What's Coming." Since he's the founder and organizer for ROBOGames, a San Francisco-based event where homemade robots from around the globe battle it out in several competitions, he'll wax poetic on the latest developments on that particular front.

"It'll be about consumer robotics in the next 10 years," he said, "what you can expect beyond dumb little pancake-sized vacuum cleaners. You're going to see two different kinds of robots in the home. You're going to see task-oriented robots and generic robots." He went on to explain that the "C-3PO" types of robots will definitely happen sooner as opposed to later, and that it's just a matter of several different pieces of already-existing technologies coming together.

The conference itself will be much larger than last year's event, which took place at the Santa Clara Convention Center. "We have a Japanese robotics pavilion, which we didn't have last year," Kara said. "So there will be more Japanese humanoids, more Japanese robots, more Japanese participation and a lot of cool robots who haven't been seen in the States yet. ... We're also having a birthday for Robby the Robot—the guy from Forbidden Planet. He turns 50 this year. ... There's nothing like RoboNexus, not even in Japan. We're having SAIC [Science Applications International Corporation] speak on Friday, a 7 billion dollar engineering company who mostly focuses on the military—combining that with academics and educational outreach, so the kids will be there. We just throw it all together."

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From the October 5-11, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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