Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
December 5th, 2006

It Starts with Hide and Seek

The first interactive game we play with infants is ‘peekaboo’.  Once they can walk we move on to hide and seek.  There is absolutely no one I know that can say that they never played hide and seek.  This primitive, universal children’s game is where we often first use our intelligence in three dimensional space to search, choose and find.  So it comes as no surprise that the first step in creating life like robots would be to teach them the game of hide and seek.

Robotics is now moving from the operation of robots remotely to the interaction of robots with humans.  In order for robots to become more human like, they must interact with humans and not jut be operated by humans.  In a number of locations that conduct robotic research and development, people are working with robots in new ways.  A recent newspaper article described how George the robot is learning the game of hide and seek at the Navy Center for Applied Research in Artificial Intelligence, where Alan Schultz is the Director.  George is an ‘off the shelf’ robot that has been reprogrammed for the game of hide and seek.  When Schultz tells George to go hide, he pauses, then moves on his wheel base to go behind a stack of boxes.  Obviously Schultz quickly finds him, but of course it takes longer for George to find Schultz.  After rounds and rounds of this children’s game, George becomes a bit more skilled in hiding and seeking.

For decades, roboticists have been constructing machines to be robots with ever more sophisticated hardware and software.  They are now taking the next step by studying how humans work together and communicate.  This has brought new academic disciplines and skill sets in the field of robotics.  While hardware and software designers continue to work, they are now joined by social scientists, linguists and medical doctors.  How to make robots more human means taking basic human behavior and its patterns and finding ways to train robots to replicate and learn such behavior.  Ultimately of course ethicists will participate.

It is anticipated that robots could start to function in basic roles within the next decade.  Robot receptionists, monitors and cuddly companions for children, household cleaning robots, even robotic massage therapists are currently being planned.  While it seems that all this incredibly expensive development of robots to clean the house or be cuddly conversation companions seems a bit rich, it will, in twenty years be looked upon as the research foundation for the sophisticated robots that will then be operating in the world.  That being said, if, in 2006 the work to make robots more human like revolves around teaching them the game of hide and seek, there is a long way to travel.  Just think back on your development since you were learning the game as a child.

The history of robots is mostly in front of us.  To the degree that they enhance our lives by doing boring repetitive tasks that humans tire of, or to the degree they add to our visual or artistic endeavors in ways that humans cannot, they are of interest.  As is often the case, research and development in one area, in this case robotics, can have unexpected positive consequences for other areas of endeavor.  It must therefore continue.  It will provide interesting and entertaining stories and articles for years to come.  Personally that is what it is for me, interesting research that makes me think of the “Jetsons” or “Blade Runner”, an amusing side bar to the larger issues of reversing global warming or creating new workable ways to disseminate knowledge and information for the betterment of us all.  We cannot hide from our responsibility in these areas, nor seek to maintain the status quo.

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