The robots in Robot Wars are a far cry from the robots of science fiction like R2-D2, C-3PO, Marvin and The Terminator. Even the house robots Sir Killalot, Mr. Psycho, Growler are not very bright – poor things. This simple fact is that it will be a long time before the type of intelligent robots we see featured in films and books are walking or hitchhiking our streets and doing our household chores. The question is how far is today’s robot fact from the robot fantasy of films, books and television? The answer is in the science and engineering of machine intelligence.
The robots in Robot Wars incorporate a lot of intelligence in some ways and very little in others. These machines include a lot of cunning, knowledge and experience. The intelligence behind the battling robots is not just in the people who build the robots but also in the engineers who design and make the components like the motors and speed controllers. Even the aluminium, titanium and steel armour requires considerable intelligence in its mining, manufacture and distribution. This is often taken for granted but it shouldn’t be. Robot design principles involve laws of physics, chemistry and maths, and knowledge of power, current, voltage, acceleration, torque and much more. The radio control systems that you can just buy off the shelf, for example, incorporate a lot of design knowledge and intelligence too. All this understanding took hundreds of years of scientific research and development for us humans to acquire. It takes a lot of intelligence to make a robot for Robot Wars, although much of it is not at all obvious. It takes intelligence to appreciate intelligence.
The robots in Star Wars, The Terminator and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy have their machine intelligence on-board. Razer, Hypnodisc, Chaos 2 and the other Robot Wars machines have their movements controlled via the eyes, brains and finger muscles of their drivers. The controlling intelligence of these robots is human and off-board. To give our robots the brains of The Terminator, scientists, mathematicians and engineers will need to continue to work together for many more years yet to create computers that are sufficiently small, light and energy efficient that they could be fitted into robots in place of today’s radio control receivers. However there isn’t much more to it than that. A robot is basically a computer that can move; a computer is basically a robot that can’t move.
So, how far away is the intelligent computer? Well, computer power has been doubling about every 18 months to 2 years for the last 50 years or so. There are some major obstacles to this evolutionary trend continuing but there are several new technologies on the horizon. These new technologies could, in theory at least, enable computers to solve harder problems than humans could ever solve; humans without computers that is. It seems that most scientists in the field think that computer power will go on increasing for many years yet.
The next part of the question is how much computer power do you need to match a human brain? The hardest thing our brains have to do is take in the massive amount of data our eyes produce each second and process it. This data is processed using our intelligence to make our muscles respond quickly, accurately and in the right way, most of the time. Research with computer vision systems gives us a good estimate of how much computer power is needed to achieve similar speed and performance as humans. Research with brain scanners shows how much of our brains are used for seeing and moving. Comparisons between human and computer vision lead to the estimate that computers are only about 20 years away from reaching human intelligence. But what if the technical problems are twice as hard to solve as this estimate assumes? This would not have as big an effect as you might think at first. If computer power continues doubling every 2 years, intelligent robots would then arrive in 22 years time instead of 20 years. Although even the 22 year estimate is, in my view, rather optimistic, it is possible that teenagers of today will be able to afford or could have built an R-D2, C-3PO, or a Marvin all of their own before they reach middle age. But will these robots be friendly or will they treat us like we treat cows, pigs and chickens? Will they be like The Terminator? Will we become the robot victims instead of the robot masters? Will we have to become cyborgs to stay in the evolutionary race? Answers will be in next month’s issue, if “my robot that can’t move” doesn’t crash that is.