Biorobotics and the rise of the robot apocalypse?

Source: Pascal, via flickr

Is the dreaded robot apocalypse upon us?

We’ve all heard of the impending robot apocalypse – otherwise known as the AI (artificial intelligence) takeover. But are we really headed toward a future where computers surpass all human knowledge and intelligence and dominate the earth?

Several well-known scientists, including Stephen Hawking, have expressed their concern over the possible eventually, and even suggested measures to put in place to prevent its occurrence.

But are we helping it along?

There are two components that contribute to the robot apocalypse threat:

  1. Artificial intelligence, the superintelligence of robots. This is the part that causes the most concern among believers.
  2. Engineering: what robots are built to achieve and are physically capable of doing (e.g. a robot can’t walk if it don’t have legs).


Biorobotics and the curious case of the self-righting beetle

Hands up who has heard of biorobotics. Anyone? No? Neither had I – so imagine how excited I got when I realized just how cool and intriguing this field of science is! (hint: I got pretty excited)

Biorobotics (or bio-inspired robots) is a field of study that combines biology and engineering, where scientists build robots based on animals. Studying unique adaptations in animals is a fairly common basis for building robots in this day and age, and leads to some pretty cool tricks that robots have.

Scientists studying biorobotics essentially work on the premise that, if you truly understand how an evolutionary mechanism works – like how fin helps a fish move through water, or how a snake can slither across the floor without needing legs – then you should be able to build it. We are building robots that can perform some pretty cool tricks and in doing so helps us to better understand the mechanics beyond some of the quirky evolutionary traits that many animals exhibit.

So how does this help robots? Well, one of the biggest issues that many robots have is that once they fall over, they’re pretty much out of action. You might have come across this yourself if you’ve played with a remote-control car, crashed it, and it’s ended up on its roof with its wheels spinning in the air. They are rendered useless until somebody steps in to assist. But not to worry, biorobotic scientists are on it!

Let’s look at an interesting example, shall we?

Introducing: the click beetle! Photo: Katja Schulz, via flickr

This is a click beetle – a fairly common and widespread beetle found across multiple continents, including Australia. What makes them special? They can jump without using their legs!

Click beetles have a small hinge in between two segments of its body. If the beetle is on its back, it bends its head forward so that a small spine on the head hooks into a notch on the abdomen. When the spine and nook are suddenly released, it creates enough force and momentum to flip itself into the air. This is how it gets its name – by the clicking sound produced as the hinge snaps open.

Check out this click beetle in action:

Click beetles use this as an anti-predatory response. If it feels threatened, it plays dead and lies on its back with its legs folded along its body. And if a quick escape is needed, or after the predator has become bored and walked away, it has no problem getting itself back on its feet.

Biorobotic scientists are now using this mechanism to build the first self-righting robot – a robot with the ability to pick itself up again if it ever falls over.

After the tragic drowning of the penguin robot, the ability to get itself the right way up seems like a useful skill to have, huh?


So how close are we really to the robot apocalypse?

For now, we’re still a way away from the robot apocalypse becoming reality. Although robots are physically and mechanically becoming more advanced – and we are finding more and more ways to overcome some of the flaws that many robots still have – the artificial intelligence which makes the uprising a concern is still in its infancy.

For many, the concept of artificial intelligence is reserved for the category “science fiction”. This isn’t helped along by the Hollywoodization of AI – i-Robot, anyone? But, AI has a larger role in our current time than people often realize.

Cybermen! Credit: waldopepper, via flickr

In reality, artificial intelligence is defined as the ability of computer systems to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence – this includes things like decision making, learning from past mistakes to inform our behaviour in the present, speech recognition, logical thinking, visual perception, etc. It is about turning a basic computer program that can only take a basic command to produce the same results time and time again, and transforming it into a much more complicated system that can draw on its memories to inform behaviour and perception in the present (hence, “artificial intelligence”). This basic definition is a bit far removed from the images of artificial intelligence that most people imagine – that pesky doomsday apocalypse – and covers a much wider range of computer systems.

We are already reaping the benefits of early-stage AI, although most don’t realize it. Do you regularly use Siri? Notice those annoying ads that pop up on Facebook that advertise things you were just googling? Are you excited about the prospect of Tesla’s self-driving cars that are the cars of the future? Are you fascinated by facial recognition software? These are all driven by artificial intelligence.

Classic Siri! Image: Karen, via flickr

AI systems can already do some incredibly useful things, but in terms of being as far as advanced as recreating the full spectrum of human intelligence that would implicate the risk of an uprising, we are still a long way off.

But that doesn’t mean people aren’t working their hardest in bringing us to the point of complete AI. AI is playing an increasingly important role in our lives, and we are growing ever closer to its ultimate advancement.

Advancing artificial intelligence + advancing engineering of robots = the potential for disaster.


Biorobotics lab: check out some awesome videos of robots inspired by biology

More on the amazing click beetle: