Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Fourth Law of Robotics.

Anyone who's seen the Terminator movies and didn't get scared of robots has no imagination. And anyone who ever read Jack Williamson's "With Folded Hands" (or its novel-length version, The Humanoids) saw the overwhelming menace of a "friendly" robot force that makes Terminator look like a day at the beach*.

So it was with some trepidation that, back around 2007, I actually invited robots into the home.


Well, as I commented on the Great Lileks's site yesterday, my Roomba experience was disappointing. Roomba neither was connected to Skynet nor any other kind of fiendish device. It was just there to vacuum the floor, which, if you own a vacuum cleaner, is the easiest part of any room cleaning job. Seriously---Roomba can't wash windows, can't dust furniture, can't change linens, can't dust walls and baseboards, can't straighten up things. What the Roomba is exceptionally good at is vacuuming under beds and high couches, which only specially designed vacuum cleaners can reach. But the price is rather high for that perk.

Still, my main complaint is not dealing with the Construct or any other form of AI, but with the batteries. It always comes down to the batteries. In the case of the iRobot vacuums, at least the ones I got (there was a three-fer deal with the Dirt Dog and Scooba), you have to use the devices regularly or the batteries get hinky. They can't just sit on the charger; they have to be charged and used, charged and used. Use it only occasionally, and leave it on the charger, or don't leave it on the charger---either way the battery will soon be unable to hold a charge. And those freaking batteries are costly.

Other problems are the lack of holding space for dirt, the need to constantly clean the brushes (which iRobot says they have since solved with brushless extractors), and that you can never have neat vacuum cleaner lines in the carpet. (Sure, laugh, but I know one woman who would go berserk because of that.)

But it comes back to the batteries. People think the big problem with energy is generation; it's storage. In Spain they were melting salt as a means of storing heat generated from solar power, which is not the craziest idea in the world. It's not like comic books, where you can just have a tiny thing that sucks up incredible amounts of energy for use later (yeah, lookin' at you, GL). Energy storage is a constant problem with green energy in particular, with electric cars (environmentally as well as for practical use and affordability) being a well-known example. Another is that people don't only want to watch TV while the sun is shining. For energy to be useful to consumers it must be available on demand, all the time.

The bright side is that the Terminator probably wouldn't have been able to rack up that high a body count before its batteries died. I'm just getting a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger in sunglasses and leather jacket, sitting still in a hotel room, an extension cord running into his chest, for hour after hour. Sarah Connor would have got away from that guy, no problem. Isaac Asimov had his famous Three Laws of Robotics; the fourth one is, robots need a lot of juice.


*Regarding artificial intelligence, see also Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream." Or rather, don't, if you want to sleep tonight.

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