Borut Povše at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia “persuaded six male colleagues to let a powerful industrial robot repeatedly strike them on the arm,” according to New Scientist.
No, this isn’t an attempt to streamline the dissertation review process in PhD programs. The study is being done “to assess human-robot pain thresholds.” But seriously now, folks, wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall for that conversation in the faculty lounge?
New Scientist quotes Povše:
Even robots designed to Asimov’s laws can collide with people. We are trying to make sure that when they do, the collision is not too powerful. …We are taking the first steps to defining the limits of the speed and acceleration of robots, and the ideal size and shape of the tools they use, so they can safely interact with humans.
Povše refers, of course, to the Three Laws of Robotics brought down by Moses from Mount Asimov as related in Genesis 19:42. In case you’re wondering, they are as follows:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
I’m sorry, did I say they were from brought down by Moses in the Bible? What I meant, of course, is that they were pulled out of Belarussian-born American science fiction author Isaac Asimov’s ass in his 1942 story “Runaround,” and thereafter used throughout Asimov’s “Robot” stories and also his space opera “Lucky Starr” series.
In futurist and science fiction fan circles, Asimov’s laws are vastly more sacred than The Bible. After all, stories from The Bible were retold throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s with, y’know, Adam and Eve replaced with slime molds, Pharaoh as a thirty-tentacled alien that craves human spleen, and Jesus rising from the dead as a satellite-based AI. Asimov’s laws, on the other hand, are treated routinely by fiction and nonfiction writers alike as if they were real laws, as opposed to fictional constructs used by Asimov to consider philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness and individuality. (Asimov also didn’t like Hair, by the way — would you trust him?)
Anyway, as New Scientist was saying:
Povše and his colleagues borrowed a small production-line robot made by Japanese technology firm Epson and normally used for assembling systems such as coffee vending machines. They programmed the robot arm to move towards a point in mid-air already occupied by a volunteer’s outstretched forearm, so the robot would push the human out of the way. Each volunteer was struck 18 times at different impact energies, with the robot arm fitted with one of two tools – one blunt and round, and one sharper.
Yes, that’s the same Epson that makes printers; they’ll be integrating this technology into their next round of laser printers, so make sure you watch those serial commas. Anyway:
The volunteers were then asked to judge, for each tool type, whether the collision was painless, or engendered mild, moderate, horrible or unbearable pain…Ultimately, the idea is to cap the speed a robot should move at when it senses a nearby human, to avoid hurting them.
However, New Scientist quotes Baylor College of Medicine biomechanics specialist Michael Liebschner as criticizing the study: “Pain is very subjective. Nobody cares if you have a stinging pain when a robot hits you – what you want to prevent is injury, because that’s when litigation starts.”
But I think Liebschner is missing the point; this isn’t about the punchbots at all. It’s about what scientists will do to get answers.
The whole thing could be a godsend for science education. Can you imagine the good that could be done by melding this concept with Robot Wars? A Smack A Scientist reality show on NBC or, better yet, Spike, would get kids interested in science again. It’d be a sort of primetime Stanford Prison Experiment with punchbots. Punchbots that hopefully run amok right around Sweeps Week. Oh, wait…Haven’t I seen that show?