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Living In Machines

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Master Brain For World Robots?

By James Donahue

I bought my first Mad Magazine back in the early 1950s, back when it was a satire comic book. I may have once owned the magazine’s first edition, I am not sure. All I know was that from the day I opened the cover I was hooked on the whole Alfred E. Newman concept of laughing at ourselves.

One comic I especially remember involved a world of people so dependent on computerized machines that did everything for them, their bodies were in atrophy. They could do nothing more than ride around in wheeled devices and speak commands to the machines that doted on them around the clock.

All of the machines in the world were robot servants to a central brain that made sure everything ran smoothly.

Of course, in the comic story, something went wrong with that central brain and the robots started acting strangely. Eventually the central brain failed and all the computerized robots stopped working. And the people were left helpless, unable to lift a wrench to fix the master brain or save themselves.

It was a crazy "end-of-the-world" story that I thought, back in 1952, would never happen. But as things have developed since then, I have lived to see humanity heading directly into that Mad Magazine scenario. Since the invention of the Internet, we have grown more and more dependent on computers for doing many of our daily chores, and we are developing computerized robots designed to do our factory work, do daily household chores, and even conduct specific types of surgery.

The brains in California’s silicon valley are working on cars that carry us from place to place without needing drivers, aircraft that carry people at high speed anywhere in the world and even robots that serve as sexual companions.

Now researchers at University of California at Berkeley, Brown University and Cornell University, backed by funding from the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, Google, Microsoft and Qualcomm, are developing what they call RoboBrain, an online service that all the world’s robots (and computers) can connect to for an exchange of information and a coordination of tasks.

This team of "roboticists" is working to build a master brain that can see, hear, understand written and spoken languages, and develop an understanding of the world that compares with our own.

The purpose is to build a central knowledge base for robots to use. And while this is going on, Google has revealed plans to collect all of the known knowledge of the world for its search engine.

Using a new and powerful system known as cloud robotics, the team has set about the task of integrating hundreds of thousands of data sources and all the various machine learning algorithms and merge them into one massive online network.

The bottom line could well be robots that indeed serve our every whim, from bringing us our morning cup of coffee to tucking us into bed each night.

And just like the Mad Magazine article described, it will all depend on a great central brain to keep the system operating smoothly.

It appears that we are heading full steam into a new lifestyle where nobody has to ever go to work and we all have a lot of free time on our hands. If it comes to this, will we use the time wisely, or will we end up with atrophied bodies riding around on wheeled machines?

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