Our Future Is Already in the Hands of Robots

One of the Ten Commandments instructs us to observe one day of rest per week . . . a day of rest for HUMANS, that is. There's no commandment we know of that says a day of rest has to be observed by ROBOTS. In fact, these days 'bots are busy day and night, seven days a week, in ways and places most of us can barely imagine. Daniel Sieberg reports our Cover Story:

The crowds, cheerleaders and mascots are not here for a football game or a basketball tournament.

This is a robotics competition called "FIRST," in which 10,000 kids from across the world descend on Atlanta and turn the Georgia Dome into a high-tech Super Bowl.

So (and this seems like an obvious question), what exactly is a robot?

Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway personal transportation device and founder of FIRST, replied, "Not only is 'What is a robot?' not an obvious question, I think it doesn't have an answer any more than 'What is a computer?'

"I think robot, to at least these kids, is a system of some hardware and some software with the ability to communicate and then to interact with its environment, either autonomously or through interaction with somebody, to accomplish a goal," Kamen said.

Of course, many of us think of robots as the stuff of movies . . . friends like R2D2 and C3PO, and foes like the Terminator.

The truth is that in real life robots generally can't think for themselves . . . yet. They still are really just high-tech tools.

The most recent example? Those robots that successfully capped the gushing BP well in the Gulf of Mexico.

But whether a mile below the ocean's surface or high up in the skies, today's robots are slowly becoming more intelligent and in greater demand . . . from medicine to the military . . . changing our lives from the ground up.

Colin Angle is the founder of iRobot, one of the world's largest consumer robotics companies. In 2002, the company swept the public off its feet with, well, a robotic vacuum called Roomba. And yes, it's still a robot even if it doesn't look like one.

"When we first started with Roomba, everyone thought robots were humanoid mechanical things," Angle said. "And when we went and asked people whether Roomba was a robot, they would all say no. They'd say it's an automatic vacuum cleaner or something. But over time, I think people have come to realize that you don't have to look like a human in order to be a robot."

iRobot's first big creation was the PackBot, a 40-pound remote-controlled vehicle. It even searched for the dead in the rubble of the World Trade Center.

On battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of PackBots do the Army's dirtiest and most dangerous jobs, like looking for and destroying improvised explosive devices or IEDs.

And the next generation of 'bots is on the march, like this small-unmanned vehicle.

Army Staff Sergeant Daniel Ruegger described how 'bots with cameras can survey an area for booby traps. "Like on a checkpoint in Iraq, you can actually do a 'peek under' mode and actually drive under the vehicle and actually see if there are IEDs or bombs mounted [underneath."

"And your eyepiece is seeing everything it's seeing, in real time?" Sieberg asked.

"Correct, real time," said Ruegger. "What I was looking at, that's exactly what I'm looking at."

Ruegger believes advance warning from a robot sentry could've prevented an attack in Iraq in 2003 that nearly killed him:

"Two grenades came over and woke everybody up. And when I was getting ready. moving so, that grenade came over the wall and landed between my legs, pushed it away and tried to maneuver away from it, the blast. And as soon as I made the corner around the Bradley, it actually injured me."

"Had you had something like this 'bot, do you think that would've been prevented?"

"100 percent, I have no doubt in my mind," he replied.

We were given a rare look inside Fort Bliss, near White Sands, New Mexico, where soldiers like Army Sergeant First Class Kenneth Colbeck put robots through rigorous testing, such as one that can hover and send video of the enemy back through the chain of command.

He said a vehicle like this "is gonna save a lot of lives."

Enthusiasm for robots on the battlefield, it seems, is only outpaced by the speed with which the military is acquiring them, says the author of "Wired for War," P.W. Singer.

"We went into Iraq with a handful of drones; we now have 7,000 in the inventory," Singer said. "We went into Iraq with zero unmanned ground vehicles that are robotic; we now have 12,000.

"And these are just the Model T Fords, the Wright Brothers flyers, compared to what's coming," he said.

Singer spent two years talking to engineers, soldiers, and high-ranking officials about the future of robots used in combat. He says that robots still have a lot of growing up to do, especially when it comes to carrying weapons.

For example, a robot right now can already hit an apple at 800 meters using a 50-caliber machine gun. It can't, though, tell the difference between that apple and a tomato, which a two-year-old can do without thinking about it.

When you take that into war, it just illustrates all the dilemmas that come out of it.

Which isn't to say we're not halfway there. Since President Obama took office, the number of remotely-controlled drone strikes has almost doubled, from Pakistan to Somalia.

And while fully autonomous robots on the battlefield may be years away, an Army report recently identified 32 different tasks for robots . . . everything from weapons loaders to armed sentries.

The report's author, Lt. General Michael Vane, says we have to change our thinking about what robots can and cannot do.

"I think what will go hand-in-hand with an armed robot in particular is the level of confidence that humans have culturally with machines over time. And so there's probably going to be a place at which we will accept or not accept armed robots in autonomy," he said.

If all this sounds like sci-fi, consider this: Americans are already placing their lives in the "hands" of robots.

Robots work in hospitals as orderlies and pharmacists. They even allow doctors to examine patients from miles away.

Last year more prostate glands were removed robotically, by surgeons like Dr. David Samadi, than the old-fashioned way.

"I'm the surgeon who does the surgery from the beginning to the end," Samadi explained. "I make the skin opening. I close the skin. And they like that."

"Because you don't look much like a robot, I have to tell you!" Sieberg said.

At New York's Mt. Sinai Medical Center, Samadi is preparing to do a prostate removal. After a few tiny incisions are made so the operating tools can be inserted, Samadi moves to a separate control area that looks like something from a video game arcade.

High-definition cameras guide Samadi as he manipulates the extremely precise arms of the robot.

"It's an extension of my arms, with a big lens, that shows you the detail of the surgery with magnification and also the high definition, but you can maneuver it anywhere," he explained. "You can navigate it all over the abdomen and get into a lot of blind spots that we would not be able to access."

Along with his robot counterpart, Dr. Samadi has performed more than 2,000 of these procedures.

Samadi says robotic surgery also comes with a long list of benefits. It's less invasive, with shorter recovery time, and there's a better chance to retain sexual function.

Does he see a day when a patient goes into the operating room and there are no humans involved, only a purely autonomous robot?

"No, no, no, we're not there yet," he said. "I think the future, you never know. I think if we have, like, very accurate images that we can give to the robot and a custom-made surgery and well-designed, you'll never know. That may happen."

Could a machine ever be that intelligent? Well, IBM is testing a computer system called Watson that can do what was once thought to be impossible: Beat humans at "Jeopardy."

As for who will be designing that next generation of intelligent robot, you heard it here FIRST.

For more info:
usfirst.org
roboticonology.com
U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command
Wire for War
irobot.com
anybots.com
beatbots.com
cesweb.org