Posts Tagged robots


Posted by on Thursday, 24 March, 2016
Robot gruumbles

                      Resentful robot asks “Why?”

Robots have more potential to “do wrong” than most people realize.

Scientists like Stephen Hawking have been warning robot makers lately (Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence could end mankind – BBC News ) . Hawking (and others) don’t think robotocists fully realize that their robots could become more self aware,  becoming unexpectedly conscious and unpredictable.

The concern is that they could turn against us, perhaps using the communications networks and the power grids to attack humanity.

Maybe  robots will decide we’re in the way or – worse – that we humans are trying to enslave the robot race. It’s not hard to see how a robot might react to that one.

Experts acknowledge that this is theoretically possible but they say we have time. Most of them don’t think we’re anywhere close to self aware “bots”; some don’t think it’s even possible.


But MisterScienceAintSoBad wonders if self awareness is the wrong thing to be worrying about.

Who says robots have to be self aware to be nasty?

What do we know about the inner lives of tarantulas? Or snakes? Is there a “me” in a snake? Does a snake know itself when it looks in a mirror? In fact, why should recognizing yourself (self awareness) matter? Aren’t the most dangerous humans, the ones that are the least self aware? Does a snake have to know about itself to be dangerous?

Robots are way past the point where everything has to be hard coded. Robot designers, like designers of other advanced software based systems, are always going “Damn! I didn’t know it could do that!”

Google Now isn’t even close to conscious.

Siri either.

Both Google Now and Siri  suck at facts like hungry babies. They gorge on facts. They get smarter every day.

So maybe we should be worrying about something else besides if robots can see themselves in a mirror. Maybe that’s missing the point. Maybe we should be worrying about  autonomous robots– the kind that don’t need humans.

Autonomous robots certainly aren’t science fiction. Every day, more robots “cut the umbilical” or, as they like to say when there’s nobody around but other robots, “cut the imbecile”.

Just kidding about the imbecile thing (I think).

We have drones and Mars Rovers that work independently – just occasionally checking in to make sure the boss is around. If a Rhoomba rug cleaner bumps into a chair, it decides on its own which way to go. It doesn’t look at you for guidance. Will some future Rhoomba – one that’s just an ordinary robot without any self awareness features –  decide it’s more logical to push the mess makers out the back door than to perpetually clean up after them?


You’re sure?

Are Rhoomba’s designers sure?

What do you think?

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The drawing is mine.


Posted by on Tuesday, 10 September, 2013



We love those funny little  space buggies. They scoot over the surface of Mars, poking  their little camera stalks up  on command. Click click, and the images are floating back to earth at 186,000 miles per second. They scrape, shovel, drill, and sample rocks, using microscopes, chemical analyzers, and other stuff, helping scientists understand the wonders of an alien world. It’s amazing to watch all this; also, of course, very educational. And it’s safe because, if anybody gets killed, it’s not a human anybody – just an expendable machine.

 Here’s my question.  Do these things deserve to be called robots if  we’re making all the big decisions back here?  I know there’s some intelligence on board. Obviously. There has to be. With that 15  minute delay,  we wouldn’t be able to keep the rovers from falling over a cliff. They land themselves automatically too  –  they have to – and they drive from point A to point B on their own (once commanded).

Nobody’s calling our adorable little rovers dunces.  But for the big decisions –  which rocks to take a look at,  which data set needs to get sent back to earth first, which set of experiments goes next – these  all come from “the ground”.

That ground-Mars-Ground round trip’s starting to get on NASA’s nerves.  According to Kiri Wagstaff, computer scientist at JPL (article in Geophysical Research letters) a new set of  “brains” designed around a new camera system call TextureCam will give make these new rovers autonomous enough to function much further away than Mars.

ScienceAintSoBad ConditionalRating = 10  for this excellent step forward. If it all works out (that’s the “conditional” piece of the rating, of course), we’ll be well on our way to real robots in space.

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The cartoon is mine. 



Posted by on Tuesday, 28 August, 2012



We have moved on from the last recession best we could. Companies are profitable. Stocks are back. even the housing market seems to be steadying.

But jobs? Peh!

Why is that?

In a word? Robots.

Nobody – not even a glib politician – is going to add jobs faster than the “robot revolution” scrapes them away. Cut taxes all you like. Stimulate till the top blows off. The fact is, technology’s outgunning us and we will keep losing jobs till we cry uncle.

Why WOULDN’T a company use the best available tools? Isn’t that what it is supposed to do? What’s wrong with that? Of course companies will buy “intelligent machines” to reduce labor costs. And why worry? Aren’t new jobs being created to replace the ones that were lost?

I have talked about this before. I’m still talking about it. Technology is zooming. Faster and faster. And jobs are being eaten alive.

Let’s look at how we shop. Consuming is a lonely chore now.  We cavort with machines at the store instead of clerks. No friendly smiles. Not even a nasty scowl.

And work? Well that’s been you and your best buddy,  the machine,  for a long time, right? Only now it’s more so. Flesh-and-blood workers aren’t valuable enough to waste a wall on. Just a cubicle. Soon humans will be so rare in the workplace, the computers will gawk when they see one. Wherever there are human workers, their computerish adversaries are crowding in.

Isn’t it time to examine our basic assumptions about why jobs aren’t rebounding along with the rest of the economy? The recovery has been slow. But that’s really not the whole story. There’s something else going on. The very technology that has the potential to free us from muckery is tossing us about like a rubber ducky in a hurricane. Unless we pay attention, there will be less rubber duckies.


This last economic bubble was real estate. At least, that’s how it began. The next economic bubble is inflating under our noses – an unemployment crisis that is being confused with a slow economic recovery.

Here’s the thing. It used to be  that automation, though disruptive , was something we could adjust to.  Jobs got eclipsed but others took their place. And because we seemed to adjust, we came to assume that we always would. No matter how powerful our computers, no matter how capable  our robots, no matter how fast the rate of innovation, we would adjust. Jobs would show up when others were destroyed. How did we know we could adjust? It’s simple. We always do.


Till it isn’t.

Look around you kids. The high unemployment is only being MASKED by the “recession” which, by the way, has been over since June of 2009. Those high unemployment numbers are your beloved technological revolution peeping at you over the walls of your complacency. While you were focused on the last set of problems, there’s a whole new set arising.

That’s bad, right?

No. It shouldn’t be.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad is just a science guy. He shouldn’t write tirades like this. It’s not his cup. Not his tea.  Techies like me? We’re THRILLED when our intelligent machines work right. Rare as it is. We shouldn’t be the ones to worry about the social implications. That’s the other guy.  Advanced robotics and computing is good stuff. It should be helping us, not hurting. It shouldn’t be ME who points out that science has consequences. That’s for the philosophers and the social engineers and the political types. Who are slouched around the TV, watching each other making speeches.

Guys! Wake up! Too many people. Too few jobs.

Get it?

What are the options? Okay, I can help  you with that.

Option A: We could make more stuff.  Create jobs that way. With all of our great technology, we could use it to increase the benefits for all. We haven’t run out of needs. Our knees and backs still hurt. More medical stuff please. The air’s too hot. Global warming solutions please. And I guess we can all agree we need lots more ringtones for our friggin’ smartphones.

There’s lots to do. It’s just a matter of finding the right way to encourage a bit more risk – taking by entrepreneurs. Maybe we need more government. Maybe we need less government. Maybe we need more leadership. Maybe we need more patent law suits.


Amping up sales could  increase employment. Can’t argue with that, right? However, maybe  things can only be pushed so fast. Maybe the public isn’t up for more innovation right now. Maybe there’s a limit too how much new stuff can be absorbed at any one time.

And that’s okay by me.

Option B: But if we can’t incentivize, brutalize, or hypnotize society into upping the need for stuff (and hence jobs) we may need to approach this differently. Maybe we need to find a better way to share out the existing jobs or, at least, the benefits of those jobs.

More, I will not say. There’s a limit to how far a technical guy is willing to debase himself. But you  – YOU know who I’m talkin’ to – you love this crap, right? You, who can’t wait till the next copy of The Journal Of Politics And Society shows up, you’re a social engineer, a political mover/shaker, one who dreams of changing the world, one dreary meeting at a time. Maybe you didn’t notice that there’s a burgeoning unemployment bubble that’s independent of the economic recovery until I said so. I helped you out, didn’t I? Now you know.

Get busy.


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Credits for the animation: to Heather’s Animations. Please note that donations are gratefully accepted in return for which (or even without a contribution) you can utilize the work you find there in your emails, articles, and what not. 


Posted by on Monday, 28 March, 2011


Accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Living hell for workers. Gamma rays galore.

Frail human bodies are battling to tame the damaged (and lethal) nuclear power plants. MRS ScienceAintSoBad would NEVER let ME do such a thing. (“Forget it, hero boy.”)

It’s inspiring. It’s amazing. It’s just.. the only word that comes to mind is..

ROBOTS! Where are the GOSH DARN robots??? This is Japan? This is Sony? This is Toyota? What’s the deal? Where are your tractor tread Nuke-agons?

BrianVastag (Washington Post) explains something that’s been bothering me throughout this crazy (and very sad) crisis. The robotics industry of Japan just never focused on high hazard applications. In retrospect? Yea-ah. It woulda been handy.

In Japan, there are elegant, versatile, humanoid robots around practically every corner but throw a few rads at one and that’s it for the warranty.


Maybe the domestic robotic industry didn’t have the foresight to prepare for a thousand year meltdown, but why not utilize specialized robots from other friendly (heck – even hostile) countries?

Vastag says there are a few such devices on premises; it’s not clear what they’re doing though. If anything.

(See why I’m confused?)


Photo credit :
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic License.


Posted by on Wednesday, 10 November, 2010



Got a letter from one of my fans.

MisterScienceAintSoBad, you wrote that the manned space program is “stupid”. I think YOU’RE stupid.  – GottaBeHonest41

OK for you, GottaBe. I appreciate your candor. I guess I have been kinda rough on the manned space program. Quoting myself, quoting myself, I did say (talking about a Mars mission):

I don’t want to sound like a broken blog, but this isn’t the first time I’ve discussed the expensive conceit of sending humans to Mars. Quoting myself, “Throughout NASA’s history, there’s been considerable tension between those who believe in the symbolic importance of getting our human butts out there and those who feel that the astronomical (good word here) costs and barely manageable risks aren’t justified when robots are proving themselves so capable.”

You’re not gonna like this much, GottaBe, but  Sara Yin describes (PC Magazine)  a 1000 day project to send an astronaut-like mechanical gizmo to the moon, inspired by the practical reality that we can’t AFFORD to send humans up there during an economic recovery that most people seem to think is still a recession.

Don’t get me started.

In the past, the human or “manned” program had two things going for it:

1. No other choice since, at the time,  robots weren’t good enough.

2. Very dramatic since death always lurked round the corner.

Kept up the public’s interest, it did. A good thing since politicians could leverage the heroics of astronauts to win more public funding for pet space projects. But not much money in the pot these days and new missions are even more dangerous and problematic. Is it even possible to survive a Mars trip? Politicians are being forced to act (relatively) rational. Skip the heroics. You wanna do space? Here’s what I got. What can you do with it, pal?

NASA, it seems, got the message and it’s up with the hardware, down with the fleshware (hence NASA’s humanoid robot). The robot they came up with looks like a spaceman.spacewoman. A dead ringer for a person that’ll be able to use tools designed for human hands.



So. MisterScienceAintSoBad says we should give the robot a name and enough personality for the public to identify with. Big doe eyes too, okay?

I guess I AM kinda pleased to read that NASA has decided to send a robot to the moon all dressed up like an astronaut. There’re about 76 good reasons to do space explorations with robots instead of people at this point.  It’s cheaper, it’s safer, and it advances the art of robotics.

Must be 73 more.

ScienceAintSoBadRating for robotic space missions in lieu of human ones? Why a 10. Of course.

Drawing credit:

By Walké (Image crée à partir de Image:Bote Boas Vindas2.png) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Where The Jobs Are: Robot Technicians, Robot Handlers..

Posted by on Thursday, 1 July, 2010

No Humans?

Technology CREATES jobs, right?

Unemployment’s kinda high.

Slow economy.

To get through the rough spot, employers have been p-r-e-t-t-y creative. Every possible trick. Technology aplenty.

Not that I’m worried. In Business Week, I read that robots create more jobs than they destroy. Robots, kiosks, voice recognition system. All fruits of the labor of human designers, manufacturers, implementers of all kinds.

If anything, technology means more jobs and more interesting work.


Jeff Burnstein, the author of the Biz Week article I quote above,  is head of the Robotic Industries Association.



Here’s the thing. Some things’re true till they aren’t anymore.

Then, they’re not so true.

Robots have been around. We’re used to them. Nobody died. (I could research this. Maybe a robot ate somebody.)  And, at times, employment’s been just fine while “machine heads” were welding away at car companies.

In bad times, we target our rage at giant job sucking winds wafting Mexican spices our way. But technology is our friend. More jobs than it eliminates.

This is CERTAINLY what MISTERScienceAintSoBad likes to think. He is a HUGE proponent of techology and science (‘case you haven’t noticed). Huge.

But I got this day job, too. Where I’m sposed to be objective. Look at evidence. Scientific approach. (Science is an elaborate way of being honest with ourselves. You can quote me.)


What’s WITH this sticky, sticky unemployment number that’s spooking investors? Maybe something new is happening. Maybe we’re slipping into the “robotic age” – the one where all our work’s done by machines? Where we live lives of leisure, living on I don’t know what?

Matthew Bleicher’s (Robots FTW) unsure. His “bet” is that us human’ll still get to flip a burger or two. But he admits he could be wrong.  Rosemary Black (NY Daily News)  describes the way that robots are now being deployed in the work place “side by side with humans”. She describes a hospital in Silicon Valley where “..Tug robots deliver meds, take out the trash and even speak politely to human workers and patients. Leasing the robots costs the hospital about $350,000 annually, while hiring that many people would have cost more than $1 million a year.”

Katharine Gammon (Wired Magazine) is less nuanced. She says robots are “stealing” American jobs in warehousing.


Where’s  this leading?


The punch line? Marshall Brain, founder of How Stuff Works, talks about ordering food at a MacDonald’s kiosk.

Too good. Too easy. The kiosk was fun. Got him thinking. He sees a “seismic shift” in the American work force for which we aren’t prepared. He points to  five million jobs lost from the retail sector already. Just the beginning, he says. You wait.

MisterScienceAintSoBad has to let you down. Can’t give you the definitive answer here. Can’t boil down the evidence. There ISN’T “evidence” for future events. We don’t yet KNOW if technology’s starting to truly destroy the base of employment).  We DO know that vigilance is the price of living in this century. Can’t live yer life by cliches . Real estate CAN go down.  So can skyscrapers. So can economies.

Things change. Expect the unexpected.

In the past, technology HAS created more jobs than it has taken away. A truism.

We hope.

Note to investors. If, by some chance, we ARE in the middle of “the big one” where  technology crowds humans out of the workplace, this has implications. High unemployment may NOT mean recession anymore.  The “salaries” of the unhired workers wind up in balance sheets as “retained earnings”. Which isn’t very fair, is it?


In the interest of fairness, social justice, and, most important of all, social order, gotta figure out a proper way to get those resources back to the new leisure classes before they get too bony.

Should be a mere exercise in Democracy, right?

What do YOU think?

Teen Angst: Cure For Acne? Cure For Backpacks?

Posted by on Saturday, 17 April, 2010



We were once beautiful. Even Fink. Once, we were healthy. supple and unblemished.

Except for the nasty zits which would lie dormant until a few days before something important like a first date, a prom, or a bar mitzvah when they would BURST into glorious Technicolor blotches, humiliating and depressing us.

And obliterating our dreams of becoming ex-virgins.


Well thank YOU, Dissaya “Nu” Pornpattananangkul, for coming up with a zit-killer DECADES too late.  I don’t believe ther’re any virgins left  in high school to benefit from this work  but Pornpattananangkul  (am I pronouncing that right?) has developed a drug delivery system based on gold nanoparticles which deliver  lauric acid directly to the (very) offending lesions.


Pornpa.. Pornpatt.. WHATEVER! .. is gonna be a terrific engineer. But there’s some science yet to be done. Will it REALLY work? Side effects? Cost?

A great first step and the article says human testing may follow soon.

ScienceAintSoBadEngineeringRating = 10

ScienceAintSoBadScienceRating? Let’s hope we hear more.


I can ONLY ride the Nostalgia Dunebuggy so far. MISERABLE and PATHETIC  as our young lives were, we didn’t walk to school leaning forward.

School books have gotten so heavy in the last five years, that obesity’s become the only REMEDY for the struggling future generations that we call kids or (sometimes) just annoying. In fact, their parents are EGGING THEM ON to gain a few pounds. “Hey. EAT that! You wanna get pulled over backwards by your books and lie there like a DOPE with yer arms and legs wavin’ around?”


Eric v.d. Luft, PhD (Syracuse) did a little research on WHY the books are so engorged.


Fat margins, fat paper, and lots of jazzy color illustrations.

You know fer SURE some kid’s gonna be too loaded up to dodge a runaway foreign car.

Too much backpack mass. This is all just a GIFT to pediatric orthopedic surgeons.

‘course the ultimate solution is a digital child. Did I say “child?”. I MEANT, of course, BOOK.  An eBook.

Not a specially  original thought.  Electronic book readers are catching on among adults.  There’re a LOT of choices. Kindle, Sony’s E-reader, The Nook (Barnes and Noble), ALL kinda smart phones, netbooks,  the Ipad (and it’s soon-to-be competitors), and so on. There’re way more “initiatives” then MisterScienceAintSoBad is in the mood to discuss. (Example).

The technology’s there. It’s even affordable. Text book publishing, parents, and teaching institutions are trying to catch up with  it.


According to the IEEE Spectrum, the world’s robot population’s about 8.6 million souls.

Well. Not souls, exactly.

You know what I mean.

Bagged By Machine: A Robot Anesthesiologist?

Posted by on Saturday, 20 February, 2010


Anesthesiology: With A Battery Backup


Has anybody ever put you to sleep?

I KNOW you won’t be dozing while reading MY good-as-coffee articles , but have you ever been put to sleep by a white coated, caring individual who then proceeded to remove your tonsils?


For medical professionals, a visit to the “Ether dome” at Mass General Hospital in Boston’s like a visit to a holy shrine. (MGH is where anesthesia was introduced to the medical world in the 1840s, in case you didn’t know.)

Ether Dome

Try to imagine a modern operation underway with a slug of whiskey dripping down the patient’s chin and four big guys holding him.her down. The doc would have – what? – 30 seconds to drag that old heart out and stuff in the new one?

Not very bloody likely!

Most of the elaborate procedures that are part of medicine, as we know it, require a peaceful sedated patient that can be kept stable for a long time. In fact, many procedures take hours. Some even take days.

Anesthesia is really one of the HUGE successes of our time. Under the command of a doctor or a nurse anesthetist at the head of the operating table, the patient’s signs are carefully monitored and the “anesthetic agents” are carefully controlled. Often, the anesthesiologist manipulates a bag, manually “breathing” for a patient whose lungs are temporarily paralyzed, watching the patient intensely for signs of  “lightening up”.


For a fun surgical experience:

1. You don’t want it to hurt (at least I don’t).

2. You don’t wanna know (unconscious).

3. You don’t want to remember it afterwards. and

4. You (or at least your doctors) don’t want you to be jerking around while tissue near nerves and arteries is being cut with great precision. So it is important that your muscles be paralyzed.

Get it all right (as well as the timing of your wake up call in the surgical suite) and, all you need for a SUPER surgical day is a nice recovery without infection. Even better would be if the hospital sends the bill to the wrong customer and – this may be TOO optimistic, the surgeons managed to remove what they were SUPPOSED to,  instead of the one on the right side.

If only the surgery were as predictable as the anesthesia.

Deaths from anesthesia happen.Nothing’s perfect. But they’re rarer than typos on Science Ain’t So Baud. Less than 1 in 100,000 procedures. RIDICULOUSLY rare!

From time-to-time, however, things go wrong enough that one of the things I mentioned above ( pain, unconsciousness, recall, or paralysis) aren’t as controlled as they  should be and a patient can have a rotten time of it.

There ARE plenty of other issues, by the way, such as “anesthesia brain” which can leave a former patient with mental deficits. However, having scared the crap out of you,  that is ENTIRELY off topic. Another time, maybe.


Anyway, getting, finally, to the point, a group from the University of La Laguna (it’s in the Canary Islands) is reporting that it has an anesthesia machine that “closes the loop”, monitoring patients and adjusting the anesthetic as needed.

Adding control to an anesthesiology machine isn’t galaxy shaking. The idea’s been around. Cooper and Newbower (Mass General Hospital) were doing this stuff in the 1970’s and Aspect Medical has been selling “Bispectral Index Monitors”  for years. (They figure out if you’re sleepy enough).

But closing the loop – letting the machine take control – is a dramatic step.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad doesn’t think’s anesthesiologists will be going out for coffee during the procedure for a few years.

Not if I’m on the damn table!

The way it’s shaping up is this. Computers are better at doing things fast and not losing track of details. But people have got that wisdom thing going and, of course, there’s STILL that Jobs, Jobs, Jobs thing to consider. So, I guess you could think of the anesthesia machine as a truly expensive set of antilock brakes that still need a driver.

This is just a beginning. The machine has only been tried with profol and on a small number of volunteers. But it makes sense medically and scientifically.

It’ll happen.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 7 .


Credit for the Ether Dome photo: Uploaded by Swampykank to Media Commons.

Behaving Robotically

Posted by on Saturday, 6 February, 2010

Employee Killer (uh.. EmployMENT Killer)

Jobs Jobs Jobs

We need more jobs, right? Maybe General Motors and NASA are a little “off message” here.

They’re creating “Robonaut 2“, a humanoid robot worker that any productivity – hungry, greedy corporation would LOVE to get its mitts around.

See, workplace robots aren’t easily mistaken for somebody you went out with last year. They tend to have wrenches for arms and stuff.

Hmm.. I take it back.

Anyway, the philosophy behind workplace robots is “form follows function”. In fact, it’s kinda reassuring when they look like machines. Easier to tell the difference between a robot and a me.

But at the Johnson Space Center, they attacked the problem quite differently because they need human assistants to work beside their astronauts. If you want a robot working beside you, it needs to be compatible with its human partners who do not HAVE little sockets to accept various special purpose tools. So Robonaut 2 (the familiar form of its name seems to be R2) can swap tools with its partners and is less likely to accidentally sideswipe a hapless spaceman (or woman) and send him.her spinning into space.

As far as gender is concerned, Robonaut 2 seems less likely to get tossed out of the men’s room than the ladies room with its current chestal configuration but I don’t see anything in the specs on the subject. Maybe its humanoid features aren’t THAT specific.

You may find it reassuring to note that doesn’t look cheap to make.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 7 and we’ll watch this development.