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Robot Language and Data Transmission Speeds

One demarcating line between sentient creatures and non-sentient creatures is the ability to use language, or otherwise communicate, with other members of the same species. Dolphins, ants, bats, and dogs (among others) all seem to be able to communicate within their own species, and they obviously don’t any human language to communicate. Thus far, only Koko the gorilla has been able to communicate directly with humans using a language that both understand (with apologies to owners of expressive pets.)

Now, researchers at the University of Queensland have created robots that are, themselves, independently creating a unique language. Finding human words too complicated for the efficient transfer of information, the robots now generate a random sequence of sounds to name a new place, then share that sequence with other robots to allow those robots to find the same place. Because each robot travels independently, they each make up their own random name for a place, and when two robots have both come to the same place but given it a different name, they seem to essentially negotiate with each other until they agree on a common name. Robot A, having traveled to some place, can tell Robot B (who has not been to that place) about that place: Robot B can then tell Robot C about the place that Robot A went to, even though Robot B has not been there. The ability of a robot to talk about places that that robot has not been to (indeed, they seem to be able to speculate about places that no robot has been to) seems like an important step toward more robust consciousness.

Considering that we don’t have a perfect explanation of how language maps onto representations of the world for humans, recreating a similar experience within robots also allows for realistic hope that we could create a sentient robot without fully understanding how our own sentience works. There is danger in that as well, because we don’t have a proven method of recognizing consciousness researchers might inadvertently destroy a sentient creature (or a great many) without realizing what they’ve done. Hopefully we can create such a reliable test quickly, or barring that, that sentient robots are more forgiving than people have a tendency to be.

If robots can create and share their unique language, they will soon be able to transfer that information across vast distances much more quickly. Scientists in the UK have broken a single laser information transmission record by transferring data at an astounding 26 terabytes per second. That’s roughly 700 DVDs, or 400 million phone calls, every second. Japanese researchers have used a multi-laser setup to transfer data at an even more amazing 109 terabytes per second. Confirming some of what Kurzweil has been saying, data transmission rates, according to researchers, are nearly doubling every 18 months. That means in about six years we should be able to transfer nearly 400 terabytes per second on a single laser using mathematical algorithms to encode and decode data. My fuzzy math says that’s about the data encoded in 10,000 DVDs transferred via single laser every second – at that rate much more complicated things like virtual reality ought to be transferable quickly enough to create decent representations of the ‘real world’ without too much lag (or stuttering, as the computer attempts to display the graphical information.)

Both discoveries are impressive in their own right, but the combination of technologies means that robots can potentially begin to create their own language and then transfer that information to other robots at incredible speeds. Moreover, there is little reason why language needs to be tied exclusively to location – robots should be able to use their language to describe anything in the world, and then transfer that information to other robots who can speak about the thing describes without ever having directly experienced it – not at all unlike what people can do.

Better, as computer components miniaturize and become integrated with people, we too ought to be able to take advantage of the data transmission rates. Of course, a biological brain could never process that much information that quickly, but with some mechanical augmentation we might well be able to translate the optical signals into chemical reactions that the brain can understand.

As a formatting note, I’m going to move to a once-a-week publishing schedule. Although today is Saturday, I expect to publish on “Futurist Fridays” from now on.

Robot Articles

April 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Two interesting robot articles hit my RSS feed today. Though they’re not ‘intelligent’ robots, they do show some interesting characteristics.

First, a robot will throw out the first pitch today at the Phillies game. Now, a robot throwing pitches is not that strange; batting cages have been automated for as long as I can remember (not to date myself too much) and throw at a variety of speeds. Two things seem interesting about this robot, however: First, it’s mobile. Granted, it’s not bipedal (like some baseball hurling Terminator, thank goodness) but that might be a feature instead of a defect; bipeds are inherently unstable and creating a bipedal robot would be great for making it seem more human but otherwise wouldn’t make sense structurally. Considering the trouble most companies have teaching bipedal robots to walk, it’s unsurprising that a robot ‘slapped together’ over a few months has wheels (not to say that robots haven’t gotten much better at walking over the last few years.) The second interesting characteristic is that it’s throwing a pitch in the MLB. Batting cages are unexciting enough that we’ve never (to my knowledge) had a ‘pitching robot’ throw out the first pitch, and so this is a first of sorts. After seeing Watson on Jeopardy!, and now a robot throwing the first pitch in an MLB game, I wonder what other robot’s we’ll see in the media. Not too shabby for some engineers from Penn on short notice. I almost wish the umps would let this robot unleash it’s best pitch once before the game (or during the 7th, whatever.)

Second, and more traditionally robotic, a robot sculpts an aluminum (showpiece) motorcycle helmet out of a block of metal. Although this robot won’t be confused for human any time soon, it does showcase some amazing skills that robots have, even if they aren’t conscious. Here, a robot is crafting far more quickly, far more precisely, and far more intricately than any human would have been able to (particularly in the time that it does.) With a little conscious creativity, it seems like it could put out some artwork that shames its human counterparts.

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