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(RANT) Androids: Why don't we have some already?

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I found out about this site a few days ago, and it somewhat revived my interest for robotics. Ever since I was a kid I always found mechanical, electronic, logical and scientific things interesting. Robots were a bit of all of this. Unfortunately, I never really had the chance to go and build a robot, mostly for financial reasons... And still today I am debating whether it would be a worthwile investment to spend at least $300 building a mobile "drone" robot, which would still have to remain rather simple, as that would only afford me a mobile platform, two color cameras, and an interface for my laptop to connect to it and serve as the "brain" of the robot.

It seems the development of innovative robotics is mostly left to the big players. We will occasionally see a flash on TV about Honda's ASIMO robot... Which cost so many millions to develop by a huge team of engineers, and yet seems to be surprisingly inneficient and primitive. Everything ASIMO does has been done years ago by researchers in universities around the world... It is by no means revolutionary, and only seems to serve as a publicity tool for Honda, rather than a serious research platform.

We also see a few robot expos here and there, but what they feature seems to be mostly automatons, and not actual robots. Or if they have robots, they are usually clumsy, bulky and impractical, with an AI so limited it would have zero use in the real world. They don't really have much "intelligence", and their level of mobility is laughable. Kind of saddening... But, is this really the state of the art?


Honda qualifies ASIMO as an "android". But seriously, where are the androids from the movies? The ones that look human, have some degree of logical understanding and intelligence, can speak and understand what people say, and are autonomous? They're really nowhere to be seen. There are lots of projects floating around, but it seems nobody has actually ever completed one.

Is it because of funding? Probably not. Honda seems to pour quite a bit of funding in the ASIMO project. And I'm sure alot of companies out there would love to have their name associated with the first viable android out there.

Is it because of a lack of technology? We have powerful energy-saving dual-core processors, very good voice synthesis (ATT), decent voice recognition, relatively good binocular vision, moderate AI, compact electric muscle fibers (muscle wire), light and resistant materials (titanium, fiberglass), the capability of creating human-looking "shells" (I would name a reference here, but I better not)... We have decent power technology (compact and light li-ion batteries), we have high-resolution, high speed color CMOS cameras, tiny pressure sensors... Self-balancing low-energy walking machines (see passive walking)... And more... We really have everything it takes!

Of course, the complexity of such a project is enormous, but don't tell me it can't be done at this stage... Don't tell me it's because of power consumption... Because there are tiny laptops with huge processing power that can last 3 hours on a tiny battery... And walking requires a very low amount of energy if done right (eg: self-balancing, instead carrying load like industrial machinery).

Fitting all the required components in a human-sized frame should also not be that challenging. What would take the most space is the batteries, followed by the onboard computer, and the huge number of electrical wires required. And if electrical muscle fibers were used, they wouldn't take much space or require a pressure pump like hydraulic actuators. They would only require some moderately complex control circuitry, which can probably be fitted in a very small casing using modern electronics.

What is challenging is the engineering and programming. The actual electronic components for such a robot would actually be pretty cheap (most likely under $100K for it all), but the engineering costs would get quite high... But like I said... How many millions has Honda shoved in the ASIMO project thus far?


The way I see it... There are a few very simple reasons why we don't have advanced androids... And they are not due to technological or financial limitations.

1) Our society has no absolute need for them. We find them fancy and beyond cool, but do we need them? This will not sound politically correct at all, and I do not agree with that view, but our society feeds on cheap labor, and to capitalists, it seems the life of an african or mexican is just so much cheaper than the creation of an android. We could use androids for hard, risky and unpleasant labor, sure, but paying someone from a foreign country to do it will cost you 50 times less. Nobody would say this out loud in a public speech, but it's clearly reflected in the actions of large corporations, and our society in general. The only "need" for androids is the one we artificially create, but since our world feels it is cheaper to get by without androids, it gets by without them.

2) Scientists, engineers and programmers are lazy and scared. That's right, they're pussies! The creation of an android is a project that promises great perspective, and those who will (eventually) succeed at this will make it into the history books.... BUT... The project also entails huge *risk*. The risk of failure is high, finding funding and keeping it is hard. Creating an android is a life project. To do it, several researchers, engineers and programmers would need to dedicate a large fraction of their life to the project... And if it were to fail, they would risk losing everything, they would risk being regarded by others as failures who have wasted time and accomplished nothing. Furthermore, the complexity of the problem at hand is great, and most people in the area have difficulty foreseeing how it all fits together. This scares alot of engineers and programmers because it is far from the relatively trivial tasks they are used to (which they almost always succeed at).

3) Our capitalist society has a problem with the notion of "long term benefit". While it's true that androids could benefit us in the long run, people have an issue with that. Investors don't like it, because if they invested in an android project, not only would there be a huge amount of risk, but it's possible they could die before the benefits of such a project concretize. To an investor, this is just not worth it. Anything that can't translate in terms of investing some X amount of money now and obtaining YX back (where Y > 1) within the next 5 years is simply not worth the risk and the wait. They would rather invest their money where they are sure that they can obtain benefits quickly. Whether what they invest in could benefit mankind or help science progress further is irrelevant to 99.9999% of them.

4) There has been a crash in the level of interest of the public. This is often disregarded... But it's true. During the 20th century, technology progressed like never before, and this raised everyone's hope for a much better future... A world where science would bring us miracles... We saw science fiction movies and books that depicted such worlds.... We saw all that 50 years ago that is. Science fiction came very rapidly. Asimov's wrote sci-fi novels between 1939 and 1958! He was already able to foresee the possibilities robotics might bring us before the field of robotics as we know it even existed. And then there was Star Wars, and many others. All depicting robots with a level of advancement beyond anything that was to be seen in the real world. I believe people got "bored". The idea of advanced robots and androids sparked an interest due to their novelty, but since people haven't seen anything close to that in the real world, the public interest shifted to other areas. The robot sci-fi "fad" lost some of its importance over time. Up to now, where people don't talk and think of robots that often anymore. People, I believe, consciously or not, see androids as a "failed promess". People have been telling them "it's coming quickly and it's going to change our lives forever" for the past 70 years, but this just didn't happen (yet)... Science "failed" to deliver it on time (just like the flying car).

I still believe there is hope, however. Research is still being done in the field or robotics in every big university out there, and this means the technology can only get more sophisticated. One day, the components required to build an android might become so cheap, that someone may be able to build one during his space time in his garage... And in that sense, it's bound to happen someday, even if that day may be relatively distant... And who knows, maybe one of these android projects will be able to get their act together and succeed.

Discuss ;)

wow ok you said a mouthful . . .

about funding robots, you might want to read this:
I would say all the time/money I spent on robots when I was a poor college student was the best financial investment I ever made. The experience I gained has given me my nice pay checks in the proffesional world  :P

What makes building androids (robots that act like humans) so hard is that humans are extremely robust. We arent good at any one thing extremely well, but we are still good at a huge number of abilities (running, memory, vision, climbing, swimming, planning for the future, regeneration, etc etc etc).

But we have built machines that can out perform humans in each of those . . . cars are faster than running, computers remember way more than people, we have night vision and infrared cameras, boats are faster than swimming, the list goes on. Robots have already taken over the factories of cheap labor.

What use is an android when we have all of that?

But we also cant build something human like because we ourselves still havnt figured out how we humans work. How the brain works is still a mystery to our scientists, for example. We also havnt figured out how to make artificial muscles that have comparable abilities to living tissue. And we definitely havnt figured out how to make robots self assemble or regenerate . . .

As for your other points:
1) Capitalism isnt as bad as you say. If I had a choice of hiring one of two robotics engineers, one an american demanding $50k/year and the other (a mexican, lets say) $30k/year. Lets say they have equal skills. Heck, why would anyone hire the american? This doesnt just work for 'jobs no one else wants to do.' It works for high skill labor too . . . If the robot building robot costs $20k/year, then I just wouldnt hire any humans anymore . . . Unless of course its like bomb disposal or nuclear cleanup that just kills off my employees . . . then Id get the more expensive bot . . . dead employees = bad :P

2) There are a huge number of android projects out there (like 50 just in japan alone). Dont think they are afraid . . . but businesses that pay for these projects however are afraid that they cannot profit from the expense of the research. Honda and Sony have spent a decade or more on this, still no profit.

3) Yea I agree. Ive heard most businesses dont look more than 5 years in the future. The problem is paying costs for 5+ years without making any profit, its really hard. What happens when your 7 year robot project has one year left to go, but you run out of money to pay your employees? They quit and your business is screwed . . .

4) The problem is uninformed futurists and science fiction writers . . . I personally claim we have at least another 50 years before we have androids running around . . .

In the end, its economics. If me buying a robot can save me more time and money then it costs to pay for it, then Ill buy it. I am sure you agree . . .

This seems to be about more than androids, there seems to be something about human-like AI in there...but anyway...

Nobody is stopping you from starting an android project. People will say it's hard, and it is, but no one will flat out tell you not to try it. So go make one.

Just wanted to add to Admin's comment on #3. Japanese businesses plan much further ahead than US companies, some as far as 50 years ahead. This is why Honda and Sony are willing to spend so much money on these projects for so long, they envision it giving them an overwhelming advantage when the market does mature. Honda actually started the Asimo project 20 years ago; the closest to that commitment I've ever seen from an American company in modern times is the guy who's been selling shares to investors in the same flying car since the 70s, but most engineers dismiss him as a con artist. I'm not sure if it's good for business or not, but it's definately good for technology.

I remember a flying car in the 70s that looked like a rounded platform, operated by a guy standing up.


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