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The Robotic Future is Fast, Cheap and Out of Control
The robotic future is here, and it looks nothing like we thought it would. Instead of humanoid, highly-intelligent robots that do our bidding, the future is increasingly one of robotic swarms, robotic quadrotors, and tiny robots no larger than insects that perform surgery. The robotics revolution, in short, is fast, cheap and out of control. Just as the computer revolution started with massive mainframes and evolved to the personal computer and handheld tablets, the robotics revolution is taking the same path -- it is evolving from large, expensive industrial robots to vaguely humanoid robots to cheap, tiny robots that follow you everywhere, thanks to built-in swarm intelligence.
The latest example comes from Planetary Resources' breakthrough initiative for commercial asteroid mining, in which hundreds of robots working together would participate as part of a collaborative swarm to mine asteroids for resources. The presence of so many robots helps to ensure the success of the mission - think of each additional robot as a form of insurance policy that the mission actually gets carried out. This, in fact, is where the term "Fast, cheap and out of control" originally comes from. In 1989, robotics legend Rodney A. Brooks originally described a "robotic invasion of the solar system," in which researchers could avoid the prospect of a catastrophic mission failure with swarms of tiny robots:
"Complex systems and complex missions take years of planning and force launches to become incredibly expensive. The longer the planning and the more expensive the mission, the more catastrophic if it fails. The solution has always been to plan better, add redundancy, test thoroughly and use high quality components. Based on our experience in building ground based mobile robots (legged and wheeled) we argue here for cheap, fast missions using large numbers of mass produced simple autonomous robots that are small by today's standards (1 to 2 Kg)."
All of this, of course, flies in the face of conventional wisdom that future robots should look like us and think like us. Certainly, the story of the humanoid robot is a story that is easy to tell: it feeds into our notions that we are increasingly headed to a world where man and machine co-exist, where robots play a daily active role in all of our lives. Consider some of the stories that have appeared in just the past week: the robot stand-up comedian, the robot prison guards in South Korea, and even robot sex workers. All of these stories seem to suggest that it is just a matter of time before robots catch up to humans in intelligence.
But that misses the larger narrative arc.
Much as the computing industry progressed from a mainframe to a PC to a mobile stage, with each stage marking bigger improvements in computing power while shrinking in size, the robotics industry could be headed for the same trajectory. What this means is the day is coming soon when each of us could have teams of personal robots that follow us around in our daily lives, doing everything from cleaning our toilets to cleaning our arteries, and communicating with each other as part of swarm intelligence. That’s a radical idea, but no more radical an idea than that one day each of us would have a personal computer. Remember the skeptics who once doubted why anyone would ever purchase a personal computer.
What's interesting is that Rodney Brooks - the developer of the Fast, Cheap and Out of Control thesis - went on to become the creator of the Roomba and small-scale military bots. His latest company is Heartland Robotics, which has been attracting VC attention of late, and could be poised to announce a major new initiative in which robots are intelligent, aware, teachable, safe and affordable. And they will look nothing like us. As The Economist recently explained, this radical re-thinking of the robotics future could lead to innovations that had never before been considered. It's time to put all of those smartbirds and nanocopters to work. One example is a potential 3D manufacturing revolution, in which swarms of these robots take over 3D manufacturing processes and keep factories running 24/7.
The robotics future could look stranger than we ever thought. We’re used to thinking of robots as looking a lot like us – only a bit stranger and without any of the emotional baggage we humans carry around. Think of the new viral Prometheus trailer with David the Android. It's time to step out of that Uncanny Valley and into a future that's much different. The robots of the future will be fast, and they will be cheap. And they will be out of control.
image: Team of Robots / Shutterstock
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.