Brains, Not Trains

by Richard Vernon

This month's focus on engineering turned out to be pretty exciting, what with articles on wind tunnels and lasers. We thought we'd put some nice destructive lasers burning through steel (or space shuttles) on our cover, but Brian Gollsneider at the Army Research Lab at Adelphi, Maryland informed me that the lasers with which they work have an 850nm wavelength intended for communication purposes only and are outside the range of human visibility. Being a “journal”, we like to keep our covers realistic and article-related (remember the little man inside the computer on the February 2001 issue?). So we went with the skier.

As Marcel Gagné reminds us in his column this month, engineers have traditionally been conceived as people who drive trains (hence the notion of chemical engineers as those who take drugs and drive trains). But as this month's articles show, most engineers seem to have abandoned internal combustion and moved to other types of engines. Rick Lehrbaum reveals Isamu, a robot with remarkably humanoid abilities for movement. The project is a joint venture between the University of Tokyo's Jouhou System Kougaku (JSK) Laboratory and the Aircraft and Mechanical Systems Division of Kawada Industries, Inc. Professor Hirochika Inoue heads the JSK Lab, and his views are among those of the many roboticists featured in the book, Robo-Sapiens, which documents current robotic projects around the world and speculates as to the future of robo-human relations.

There seems to be three schools of thought among roboticists concerning this future: robots will surpass humans in intelligence and ability, robots will never approach humans or humans themselves will become increasingly robotic.

One particularly impressive project highlighted in the book is DB (Dynamic Brain) of the Kawato Dynamic Brain Project at Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute near Kyoto, Japan. The DB robot is used by neurophysicists who work with the robot to learn more about the functioning of the human brain. The scary thing about DB is it learns, not through programming, but by watching and mimicking the movements of humans. It's already learned to balance objects and juggle better than its instructors. There is one glimmer of hope however, at the book's press time, it still couldn't dance very well.

If the future should bring robots superior to humans, let's hope they run Linux—perhaps running open-source software will make them more inclined to share the earth with their inferior humanoid cousins.

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