I, Computer

Since my college days studying transistors, the basic building blocks of computing, I have learned much about the “brains” of computers— technically, the central processing units (CPUs, for short). Suffice it to say that computer technology has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. A very, very long way.

What has enabled the progress is the ability to pack transistors — millions of them — into smaller and smaller units. How is this possible? Obviously, it is not humanly possible: It takes computers to make computers. Ever faster and smarter computers are leading to unforeseen breakthroughs in all areas of human endeavor.

If the progress continues apace, will computers — in the form of robots — ever have the ability to run the world, a la Terminator and I, Robot?

That all depends on how you define “robot.”

For many of us, science fiction has implanted images in our mind's eye of reliable android workers that speak in a monotone voice while otherwise evidencing very humanlike quirks and personalities. Apparently, we prefer robots we can not only use as machines but also relate to as friends.

Meanwhile, commercial and industrial robots are already very much a reality. I was surprised recently, for example, by a lawn mower I used while visiting my sister. It was self-propelled — nothing new about that, but, instead of running on one set speed, it adjusted to me. When I pushed a little harder, it sped up. And vice versa. It was “collaborating” with me.

Have you looked under the hood of your car lately? Surely you've noticed that you can't adjust the carburetor like you used to. Why? Because today's cars have their own “brains” to regulate the complex fuel-injection engines they're equipped with. They can adjust themselves to changing conditions. Anti-lock brakes, air bags, all manner of conveniences and safety features — all are controlled by a computer chip that decides from many sensor inputs what, or what not, to do. So your life may very well depend on the judgment your car makes while you are driving it.

How about “Roomba,” the robot vacuum cleaner sold at irobot.com and in stores? Place the appliance on any floor and simply switch it on. Roomba debuted in 2002 and is based on technology that has been around for two decades. Of course, it has been updated since then and is “smarter.” It decides when an area is finished and knows when it's stuck on something. Newer models even sport an “active dirt-response system.” A sonar device listens to the volume of particles being cleaned and, from this information, automatically focuses the vacuum on that spot.

Frustrated with a disobedient dog? Well, give him some competition. For a mere $1,800, you can get Sony's ERS-7 AIBO at sony. net/Products/aibo/index.html. Why the strange name? Apparently, aibo in Japanese means “companion.” It's also an acronym for Artificial Intelligence Robot. This dog can understand 100-plus words and phrases, recognize its owner's face and voice, show a multitude of facial expressions, autonomously play with its bone or play soccer with its ball, and self-charge by finding its own battery-charging station. Sony says the clever canine is “supplied with a full range of accessories that allows for both the joys of raising a robotic pet alternative, as well as the satisfaction of useful functionality.” Aibo can even communicate with your wireless home computer system.

And then there are the outer limits of where robots can serve — literally. Remember the rover that tested the soil on Mars last year? Who knows what might be next from NASA's research and development people?

A little closer to home, automated-assembly robots have been around for some time. They may not look pretty (check them out at robots.epson.com), but they get the job done. Robots, for example, are heavily used in automobile-assembly plants. I even read about a prototype U.S. Postal Service center that was totally automated — no humans needed to move the mail!

Remember the Six Million Dollar Man? Well, scientists today are working on “human augmentation robotics” technology, also known as bio-mechanics. It turns out Steve Austin, the heroic cyborg, wasn't as far from reality as we thought. For instance, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a biomechanics team has been working on developing the Active Ankle-Foot Orthosis, a robotic attachment that can reanimate a paralyzed ankle. Meanwhile, a team at Berkeley is working on the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton. It fits over the wearer's legs and assists in carrying heavy loads over long distances. It has possible applications in defense, firefighting and rescue-and-recovery operations.

And it just keeps getting better— or scarier, depending on your point of view. Honda engineers have come up with Asimo, an incredibly convincing humanoid robot. Check him out at asimo.honda.com. Built with a human form, Asimo has flexible joints that allow him to balance himself as he moves about and completes assigned tasks. So far, he's the world's only humanoid robot that can walk independently and climb stairs.

As far as we know, Asimo is not thinking about taking over the world. Or is he?

Brother John Raymond, co-founder of the Monks of Adoration, writes from Venice, Florida.