The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, November 06, 2010

The uncanny valley just became a gravity well

NASA is about to send up the first humanoid robot in space.

'Feel free to recall your favourite sci-fi robots,' says the BBC's science correspondent, Jonathan Amos.

Well, yes.

The rationale for specifically humanoid robots in space given in The Night Sessions - that they're ergonomically suited to the same tasks as humans, while being better suited (so to speak) to the conditions - is much the same as that given by NASA. I have to admit though that in the novel it was more a case of a solution looking for a problem: the society already had humanoid robots, and they turned out to be unwelcome almost everywhere, so they were desperately searching for a useful niche.

There are, of course, darker possibilities, which Charles Stross has had fun with.

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I've been following Amos's blog for a while now. It's quite interesting. I don't think Stross for the first to point out the darker uses we could potentially put humanoid robots too but I did enjoy that book.
It seems to me that there's something lacking in the notion of putting robots, instead of humans, into space. If we don't go I think it says a lot about where we are and how we view ourselves. I know that there are risks, but I am also sure that the first ocean goers must have looked at crossing the Pacific or the Atlantic with the same appreciation of the risks.

At the moment it's robots as well, but I agree: we have to go there ourselves.

And the first ocean goers can't have had the same appreciation of the risks - they can have had no idea how wide the oceans were! But again I agree with your main point: we have to take risks. (By 'we' of course, I mean other people, braver than me. You wouldn't catch me going up in one of those things.)

Strikes me that there's another reason for building humaniform robots. There are loads of other possible shapes, of course, and they may well have advantages. But knowing what those advantages are, and how significant they are, is likely to be quite hard. The human form is in many ways the easiest decision to take.

The humanform is there to make it easy to work alongside humans. Most of ISS's interfaces that can't be operated from the ground - with the exception of the docking adatpers and robot arm grapple points - are designed to be operated by things with 5 fingers and some eyes about 18" away from them. So humanoid robots make sense. Take the humans right out of the equation, and you may as well make the whole spaceship look like Surveyor. So - there will only be humanoid robots around when there are humans around, I'll bet.

Chris Williams

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