Hardware

AI no longer needs to fake it. Just don't try talking to your robots

Mankind's creations are almost better than the real thing

By the early 22nd century, Mega-City One will stretch down the eastern seaboard from Montreal to Georgia. It will be home to some 400 million citizens. Almost all of them will be unemployed.

Judge Dredd’s vast satirical dystopian backdrop in the pages of 2000 AD is one of the comic’s most colourful settings. A predominant theme of life in the city is sheer boredom. All manual, retail, clerical and white-collar labour has been taken over by robots. With the exception of the usual handful of capitalists and criminals, practically everyone survives on benefits.

This is one vision of a near-future in which artificial intelligence and robotics have been developed to such a level that they both eradicate the drudgery of everyday human existence while at the same time removing all purpose from it. So how close are we to reaching this inevitable scientific goal?

From here, it still looks a long way off but the one thing holding it back is our limited commercial success in affordable, reliable, articulate and independently mobile robotics. They are nowhere to be seen outside universities and laboratories, which even so are full of amazing but slow, clumsy, fragile and mains-tethered demo units that have been outrageously expensive to develop.

The closest anyone not writing a thesis has got to anything resembling an independently moving and ‘thinking’ robot of the Mega-City One type is a robovac. It scuttles around your floor and sucks up dust without additional human intervention – and that’s it. It does not engage you in conversation or make your job redundant, nor is it likely to rise up one day against its human slavemasters.

Yet a robovac is an elementary example of AI and mechanics put into practice. Artificial intelligence does not mean an ability to speak and interact with humans but simply to be automated in an intelligent way. A robovac wakes itself up, recognises the difference between carpet and solid flooring, navigates the furniture and stores itself for recharging when it’s finished. The Dyson 360 Eye even plans out its own work strategy, knows its whereabouts in the room, and keeps track of the bits of floor still remaining to be cleaned.

Now take your robovac, swap the rollers for a set of rugged fat wheels, add a solar power unit and fit some articulated limbs – it’s a Mars Rover! Over-simplification aside, the comparison is fair. While there is a significant element of remote control involved, the one last mobile Mars Rover, Opportunity, has been allowed to do some of its own thinking ever since its Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS) upgrade. To maximise its remaining time on the red planet, and to reduce remote control effort, Opportunity itself can look around, recognise what it sees and determine which rocks to analyse and which to ignore.

Don’t underestimate the importance of wheels to early 21st century AI: the day of the self-driving car is almost upon us. It’s not just Google and Tesla but proper nuts-and-bolts manufacturers such as Nissan, Toyota, GM, Volkswagen and Audi who are serious about the idea. California issued its first test permits last September for autonomous cars on its public roads, and Nevada has given a licence to Freightliner to let its fully-autonomous lorry, Inspiration, onto the highway to send the wind up anyone who has ever seen Steven Spielberg’s Duel.

Statistics dullards have enjoyed pointing out that the 50 self-driving cars buzzing around California at the moment have been involved in at least four accidents already, noting that an eight per cent accident rate was higher than that for human drivers over the same period. However, further investigation reveals that two of these accidents were the result of other cars driving into them, and the other two took place while the driverless cars’ human occupants – a legal requirement at the moment – had chosen to take control of the wheel. Duh!

Will self-driving be the only type of car allowed on public roads in 50 years’ time? Don’t listen to the publicists, listen to the engineers – and the men with spanners and oily overalls are certain this is going to happen.

Even if you remain unconvinced, even when you disconnect the field of AI research from the baggage of mobile robotics, it becomes evident that AI has been making huge strides into everyday lives anyway, but simply out of public view. The most common of these, of course, are expert systems, which are designed to solve very specific problems. Expert systems have been in use for decades for data mining and information retrieval, not least for business information reporting, and this area continues to expand to meet the new demands of big data.

Classic data processing and querying were fine in their day but the introduction of fuzzy logic and research into neural networks raised the bar. Information retrieval systems use AI to hunt, compare, interpret and evaluate before authoring human-friendly reports.

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