LS: Speaking of Science Column September 15, 2008

Want your own robot? Check out the driveway

There is great power in imagination. Science fiction today takes for granted that we will build automatons that are difficult to distinguish from ourselves in all terms except for possibly appearance. It is this kind of imagination that has driven us to understand and change our world.

I have worked with robotics and artificial intelligence for some time now and can comfortably say we are a long way off from realizing that dream. The robots of today are not uncannily human, but then “useful and important” is not a synonym for “like us.”

As a local coordinator for the NASA Space Grant consortium, I get the opportunity to work with students on robotics projects. The larger goal of these projects is to develop the skills for students to work in the aerospace industries.

These industries employ some 25,000 people in Colorado alone, making us one of the most technical states in the country. Our latest project is to build a small rover capable of autonomously maneuvering through terrain similar to Mars. But vehicles don’t have to travel to other planets to be robots.

In pursuit of better transportation, the automobile is the best example of a robot commonly owned today.

Transformed by thousands of man-years of research and development, we started with an unsafe, unreliable and environmentally unfriendly machine controlled by fairly simple mechanical linkages and changed it into a safe, reliable and much more environmentally friendly device.

More and more, your input into the system we call a “car” is really only a suggestion, while computer-controlled logic takes your intention into account while actually doing the driving.

The outcome? Reliability is up, while emissions and fatality rates are down.

Not to say we are done. Many people still die because of cars. The World Heath Organization has identified cars as a leading “disease.” And, although they mostly have been off the radar until recently, the world awaits the innovations of scientists and engineers in the automotive industry to see what can be done about carbon emissions.

Not to say our own habits might not have to change. After all, we gave up on the horse because a better idea came along.

At the forefront of automation, the military has pressing needs for vehicles that do its work without risking personnel.

DARPA, the research branch of the military, has been working to develop that technology. As part of that effort, team Mojavaton based in Grand Junction participated in a series of challenges to build a fully autonomous vehicle suitable for transporting supplies.

As part of that team, I feel lucky to have peered at the future. Over the next 10 years, we will see remarkable changes in what transportation looks like in the military. The development of that technology is a great opportunity now, and it may transform how we drive on civilian roads in the future.

Personally, I look forward to planning a trip with my family, knowing full well that the “drivers” in other cars are experts with lightning-quick reflexes, and not sleepy, drunk or distracted by a cell phone, and that I can spend time chatting, enjoying the scenery, or watching a movie. What’s more, it will drive very close to other traffic. This will lower my fuel cost (and carbon emissions) due to drafting aerodynamics and billions of tax dollars due to better utilization of roads.

I really don’t care if my car knows how to tell a good joke. At least I can tell one while it worries about the road.

Warren MacEvoy is a computer science professor at Mesa State College, with a doctorate in applied mathematics from the University of Arizona. He has spent most of his life in the Southwest and especially enjoys the Western Slope.

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