Since Fritz Lang's Metropolis of 1927 Robots running amok has been a recurring cultural meme, one showing no signs of exhaustion. Robots reflect our humanity back to us, they are the embodiment of ideas we have about ourselves and we are constantly reassured by the idea that no robotics scientists anywhere has been able to design a robot that can do such a basic thing as reliably make a cup of coffee. It's a major breakthrough in fact when a robot can even carry a cup of coffee on a tray.

With so much of western culture, from politics to education dominated by 18th Century notions of singular consciousness and the uniqueness of the individual, robots are scary, we're deeply ambivalent about their benefits and treat every new announcement with a mocking raised eyebrow. The fact that the aesthetic of humanoid robot design seems stuck in the Buck Rogers era doesn't help of course. These disquiets usually miss the point. Battlefield robots have been in action and saving lives for many years and a recent survey concluded that senior US military commanders reckon on infantry robots by 2025.

Japan has a natural competitive advantage in modern robotics with uptake for industrial manufacturing many times that of the USA or China. Japanese robotics also seems to have a more sophisticated view of what might be society's future needs. With a rapidly aging population the Paro looks like a great idea. A cuddly, furry seal shaped machine that responds to touch and emits lifelike cries when left alone.

At Google the autonomous car (see previous post) pioneered by Sebastian Thrun presents a compelling argument for re-thinking our approach to roads, traffic and commuting; the whole idea of powered travel in fact. Robots don't need to mimic human behaviour, in many cases it's better when they don't. They do need to address real problems in society though.

The really interesting stuff in robotics is being done outside the lab. In line with the citizen science zeitgeist, people like Hackerbot Labs are providing the tools for home robotics on an amazingly sophisticated scale. Just as you can now sequence parts of your own genome in your basement with gear off ebay, the combination of rent-by-the-hour CNC milling machines and online kits has made homebrew robotics into a massive and exciting scene. Crossing into hardware hacking and drawing inspiration from the open source software movement, it's all about collective culture and crowdthinking.  We're slowly building a way of combining our interests with others across discipline lines, the storming of the science establishment citadel is now unstoppable.

John Fass

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