I, Computer: Just How Smart Will Our Machines Get?

A few years ago I studied in college how the transistors, the basis for computers, work. Since then I have learned about how the "brains" or "central processing units" (CPU for short) of our computers are made – a definitely complex process. Millions of transistors are being packed into smaller and smaller spaces. How is this possible? Obviously, it is not humanly possible. Computers and computer controlled equipment are helping build ever more sophisticated and densely packed transistors. Computers are leading to breakthroughs in all areas of science at an ever increasing rapid rate.

Will computers in the form of robots like in the Science Fiction movie series "Terminator" or the newer movie "I Robot" take over our world? Robots are only the thing of Science Fiction – or are they? That all depends on how you define a robot. For many of us, Science Fiction has defined robots for us ranging from The Jetsons’ Rosie the Robot to Star Wars’ C-3PO and R2-D2. Apparently, we prefer robots that act something like us. However, in the real world commercial and industrial robots or thinking machines already exist in our lives. I was surprised recently by a lawn mower I used while visiting my sister – it was self propelled but instead of one speed this lawn mower adjusted its speed to however fast I pushed it. It "learned" from me! Have you looked under the hood of your car lately? Can’t adjust the carburetor anymore? Why? Because a car now has its own "brain" that regulates the complex fuel injection engine. It adjusts itself to changing engine conditions. Anti-lock brakes, air bags, etc. are all controlled by a computer chip that decides from many sensor inputs what to do or not do. So your life may very well depend on the judgment your car makes while you are driving it.

How about that iRobot Roomba robot vacuum at irobot.com? It is a home appliance that can be placed on any floor and, given enough time, will figure out itself how to vacuum it. It debuted in September 2002 and is based on technology that has been around for two decades. Of course, it has been updated since then and is "smarter." This vacuum decides when an area is fully vacuumed and knows when its stuck on something. Newer models even sport an "Active Dirt Response System." A sonar system listens to dirt particles hitting the vacuum and then focuses the vacuum on that spot. It still isn’t smart enough, however, to "seek out" dirt. This "robot" is available at most retail outlets.

Tired of your pet dog not listening to you? Well, give him some competition. For a mere $1,800 you can get Sony’s ERS-7 AIBO, a robot dog at sony.net/Products/aibo/index.html. Why the strange name? Apparently, AIBO in Japanese means "companion." It is also an acronym for Artificial Intelligence Robot. This dog can understand 100+ words and phrases, recognize its owner’s face and voice, show a multitude of facial expressions, autonomously play with its bone or play soccer with its ball, and self-charge by finding its own battery charging station. Sony says this dog "Is supplied with a full range of accessories that allows for both the joys of raising a robotic pet alternative, as well as the satisfaction of useful functionality." This dog can communicate with your wireless home LAN system!

Now you may think a pet robot is all fun and games. However, Paro, a "Mental Commit Robot" modeled after a baby harp seal, has been studied for its effect on sick children and the elderly. Paro has proven to bring comfort and relaxation in these circumstances. Animal therapy has already been recognized for its positive merits in the areas of medical care and welfare. However, in pediatric wards at hospitals and nursing homes for the elderly real animals can’t be used for therapy because of associated problems such as allergic reactions, zoonotic infections, biting, scratching etc. Additionally, it is also difficult for those who live alone to take care of pets. It is often forbidden to raise animals in housing complexes. Under such circumstances, Paro was developed in order to meet the demands for a robot pet which can coexist with humans.

NASA is another place where robotic devices can prove very useful. They have built robotic spacecraft and rovers, smart machines that can perform complicated tasks millions of miles from home. A rover sent to Mars last year has its own mini-lab to perform tests on soil samples.

A little closer to home industrial and assembly robots have been around for some time. They may not look pretty (check them out at robots.epson.com) but they get the job done. Robots are used in automobile assembly plants. I even read about a Post Office center that was totally automated – no humans needed!

Remember the Six Million Dollar Man? Well scientists today are working on human augmentation robotics technology, also known as biomechanics – in other words the merging of body and machine. For instance, at MIT a biomechanics team has been working on developing the Active Ankle-Foot Orthosis – a robotic attachment that can reanimate a paralyzed ankle. A team at Berkeley is working on the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton. It fits over the wearers legs and assists in carrying heavy loads over long distances. It has possible applications in defense, firefighting, and rescue and recovery operations.

So what about C-3PO type robots? Honda engineers have come up with Asimo the humanoid robot at http://asimo.honda.com. Built with a human form Asimo has 26 degrees of freedom (acts much like human joints for optimum movement and flexibility) that help it walk and perform tasks much like a human. Asimo is the world’s only humanoid robot that can walk independently and climb stairs. However, at present, Asimo is not thinking about taking over the world…or is he?

This month let us look at some helpful articles and sites on prayer.

A good place to start is to see Christian Prayer in Part Four of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Vatican site at vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM.

Perhaps you prefer the old question-answer format of the Baltimore Catechism section on prayer at catholic.net/RCC/Catechism/3/l28.html.

Brother Craig here at the monastery, who has a Licentiate from the Anglicum in Rome in Spiritual Theology, has an article on Contemplative Prayer on our community’s website at monksofadoration.org/contempl.html.

One of the degrees of contemplation is called the Prayer of Quiet, which you can learn more about in the online 1911 version of the Catholic Encyclopedia at newadvent.org/cathen/12608b.htm.

The Christian’s Prayer sponsored by the Vincentian Community at cin.org/kc26-7.html is part of a longer series of articles beginning at cin.org/cis.html that is worth reading.

It’s always good to see what St. Thomas Aquinas has to say on prayer in his Summa Theologica at newadvent.org/summa/308300.htm.

EWTN has a webpage of devotional prayers at ewtn.com/devotionals/prayers/prayers.htm.

As one can imagine, there are many more sites on prayer. For more sites see my online Catholic Directory Prayer category at monksofadoration.org/prayer.html.

Brother John Raymond welcomes
e-mail at john@aplusconsultingnow.com.

He is author of Catholics on the Internet: 2000-2001,
Webmaster of www.monkofadoration.org