Wimpy robots no match for evil human creators

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2005, 12:00am

As a responsible journalist, my job is to shed light on complexity and, more importantly, to incite paranoia. I do this because I care about my readers.

You see, fear is good for you because it unleashes adrenalin, which fires up your senses and burns calories, making you less likely to fall prey to unemployment or 'globesity'.

My terror tactic this week is to revive the familiar fear that we could all one day be enslaved by the cold hands of robots. Indeed, some of us already are.

California has the Governator: a machine which, the story goes, was sent back in time to terminate Gray Davis. Why then shouldn't robots run the rest of the world and use us to oil their joints, wipe their plasma screens and put out the trash?

The scenario looks even more plausible in the light of the revelation that Cornell University scientists have made robots that can self-replicate, just like the machines in Michael Crichton's book Prey.

Blame the bizarrely named Hod Lipson, who led the research team. His robot army is built on modular cubes called 'molecubes', each containing the machinery and program necessary for replication.

Electromagnets stuck to the cubes mean they can bond and detach according to program instructions. As a result, one robot can build another from scratch by stacking up cubes. Hey presto! No longer does nature hold a monopoly on the breeding shtick.

In theory, the development paves the way for robots to reproduce like desktop widgets. They add a twist of devilry and, at a pinch, the robots could gang up, tear down the internet, commandeer our mobile phones and take over our homes.

I am especially keen to believe this can happen because, for one thing, the tech world is hardly fraught with danger.

About the greatest threats we face are the kind of worms found in e-mails and mobile phone microwave exposure, which is easily sidestepped by using an earpiece.

For another, despite producing the likes of Steve Jobs and Stephen Hawking, our record as a species is shocking. Just look at some recent inventions such as squawk bombs, 'happy slapping' (filming someone on your mobile while you set them on fire), and blogs.

We deserve to be usurped, and the sooner the better. However, are robots ready to mount an offensive?

Well, TV robot war machines look like they may have the might. With their pincers, drills and buzz saws, they look mean - especially when one disables another, then shoves it into a pit of fire. All the same, these electronic warriors seem incapable of going feral and taking on the sadists who take pleasure in their destruction.

Indeed, no matter how much I antagonise my own pet automaton, Robosapien, all it can muster are sluggish kung fu kicks that could barely fell a Barbie doll. Robosapien is a wuss.

Despite their name (which suggests they could rip you to shreds), even Talon-3B robots are pacifists blessed with a skill that would have warmed the heart of Princess Diana. They detect and try to defuse roadside bombs in Iraq.

At St Mary's Hospital in London, 'Dalek doctors' called Sister Mary and Doctor Robbie patrol the wards. However, unlike the original Doctor Who Daleks, they do not chant 'exterminate' and then zap the patients.

Instead, they monitor misfortune. Davros, the crackpot who invented the Daleks, would turn in his grave if he saw just how nice modern robots were.

And now the nicest of them all, the courteous if somewhat neurotic C-3PO, is back to set a good example to robots everywhere in the final instalment of the Star Wars series, Revenge of the Sith.

Robots look unlikely to rival the ability of their creators to cause terror and destruction for many years to come.

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