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Androids: fantasy VS. reality

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Androids or humanoid robots are machines which appearance is similar to that of human beings. Such robots are often regarded as the first step towards developing an "artificial human". Although the latter will probably remain in the realm of science-fiction for a long time, humans' ability to create robots after their own image has improved a lot over the last decades. Meanwhile, new technical challenges and obstacles have been revealed.

 

Mimicking the human being

Androids are different from usual robots in many regards. Of course they are very different from Kuka Robotics productions that works on assembly lines in various car factories. They are different from iRobot creations which take care of cleaning and hovering an increasing number of houses too. So why are androids so unique? Well androids not only aim at looking like humans, their purpose is also to mimic its movement and skills in order to fit in their environment and interact with it. In this regard, the capacity to move around and walk in a daily, urban or natural setting is undoubtedly the first feature android makers are trying to give to their creation. But walking can be defined as a "continuous disequilibrium", and teaching a machine how to manage the unpredictable on two legs is a difficult task although some robots, like Boston Dynamics' Petman , handle it pretty well already. Designing robotic four-legged "mules" like BigDog and its successor Alphadog is definitely easier. But this robots are vowed to remain tools for enhancing Man's capacity without ever being able to replace him.

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"As the boundaries between natural and artificial intelligence become as gray as matter itself, we are left to wonder when the day will come when robotic science fiction will become reality", Courtney Boyd Myers explains in Forbes magazine. Androids' goal is to replace Men in some situation. It's a long way to go before machine replaces men on a battlefield for instance. But robots will soon be able to take humans' place in many dangerous situation. They could be put to contribution to go where Men cannot go, like areas that are affected by a radioactivity, chemical or industrial risk or natural disaster. Armies all over the world are interested in such practical applications. None have succeeded in doing better than the American Army and DARPA (Defense Advance Research Program Agency) which sponsors an annual robot competition which gets state-of-the-art technology together. In 2012, Virginia Tech won the award with Thor . The robot star of year 2013 is called Atlas and is Petman's descendant. Existing models are improving towards a common ends which DARPA explains very clearly in the rule of its robot contest: "Competitors ["] are expected to focus on robots that can use standard tools and equipment commonly available in human environments, ranging from hand tools to vehicles, with an emphasis on adaptability to tools with diverse specifications"

 

Temporary limits

Moore's law is not exactly about robots. But the pace of improvements in the field of robotics suggests similarities with computing technology. For instance, it is only a matter of time before the main limit androids are faced with today is removed. That limit is autonomy. There is actually two kinds of autonomy, decision-related autonomy and energy-related autonomy. The first one directly depends on the quality of artificial intelligence that will be used in the next generation of androids. Programmers have already achieved tremendous AI systems, enabling robots to adapt their behavior according to their state. Robots can now change their route if damaged for instance. Nowadays, AI programing specialists focus on creating better softwares that will be able to take a decision using data that are gathered in the action and that are not included in the default setting of the AI. "Ultimate AI would be a recreation of the human thought process -- a man-made machine with our intellectual abilities. This would include the ability to learn just about anything, the ability to reason, the ability to use language and the ability to formulate original ideas", Tom Harris explains . May be one day robots will be able to understand that they can fail doing what they were meant too if they are endangered. May be they will able to understand they can "die" if they are damaged.

Way before that, androids will probably solve their energy autonomy problem first. Difficulties are numerous in that field too. "Robots will need resistant, powerful, light and safe batteries in the future. The goal is to make wiring to external power source useless. It is probably the most demanding research challenge for R&D in the energy industry" VP sales and marketing North America for Forsee Power Solutions John Cavlovic says . Japanese Robotics Association expects the robots market to soon weight several tens of billions of dollars per year within. In the meantime, power supply solutions for androids will have to be found. " Power consumption is one of our most difficult design considerations, we designed our robot from the ground up, so that it would draw as little power as possible, knowing that the battery technology is going to take many, many years to catch up ", Brain Zenowich , from Barrett Technology, explained in 2009. Back then, power supply and autonomy was already a technological challenge. A couple of solutions have been found since then, but most of the challenge remains unchanged. Hence according to John Cavlovic, "batteries are going to be one of the technological milestone of our century because they will unlock new possibilities for mobile electronic devices, robots, housing and so forth". It is therefore no surprise that batteries are subject to a lot of attention and investment.

However, the future of androids is not just a matter of expertise. Ethical considerations are also raised. Humans will most likely need to be taught how to behave and work with robots. Some studies have already focused on the special relationship soldiers sometimes had with robots that are used and sometimes destroyed on the battlefield. Humans experience feelings, emotions for items that surround them, help them and enrich their lives. And we are only about to discover how we can relate to items which resemble us like a dead ringer.
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