The squat, four-wheeled Robot driving itself through densely wooded terrain looks too macho to be cute, but it's too small to be threatening (picture a cross between R2-D2 and a Jeep). "You start to associate personalities with each of them," says Mark Del Giorno, of his 'bots. But still, Del Giorno, the vice president for engineering at General Dynamics Robotic Systems, which built this machine for the Army, insists that he doesn't anthropomorphize his robots: "You realize that the 'personality' comes from, say, the steering being a little loose. I guess I'm too close to the code to think of them as people."
Nearly one million lines of code running through four onboard computers define the algorithms that allow XUV 12 (for"experimental unmanned vehicle"), as this robot is called, to navigate autonomously from point A to point B without clobbering a boulder, speeding off a cliff, or hammering a tree-which is exactly what it seems about to do right now, on a test loop at Fort Indiantown Gap, in central Pennsylvania. Suddenly the 'bot darts to the right and jumps off the dirt trail it had been following."This is good! This is good! Off is good!" Del Giorno enthuses from the back seat of the pickup truck he's using as a chase vehicle. After studying the laptop computer balanced on his knees, he realizes that XUV 12 has left the road because it's come up with a more direct route to its destination. Unfortunately, this new route runs directly through more trees. So the 'bot slams on the brakes, dust pluming around its tires. Then . . . nothing.
Del Giorno is unfazed."He's gotten to the point where he's saying, â€Hey, this is a dumb decision. I never should have gone this way,'" he explains, clearly anthropomorphizing the 'droid in spite of himself. XUV 12 inches back and stops again."OK, he's taking another look at the situation," Del Giorno says. The sensor pod mounted on top swivels right and left in disconcertingly lifelike fashion as the ladar (laser detection and ranging) system paints a 3-D image of the world directly in front of it. On his laptop Del Giorno examines what the robot is"seeing"-a color-coded map studded with trees represented by red no-go zones."Now he's trying to plan a hard-left turn," Del Giorno says. Sure enough, the sensor pod rotates to the left, and XUV 12 snakes between a pair of trees. When it gets to the edge of the trail, it pauses again, troubled by the steep, slippery terrain."Behave yourself!" Del Giorno mutters."Don't be a sissy!" On cue, the 'bot climbs up on the trail and trundles off.
"Oh, that was awesome!" Charles Shoemaker says from the front seat. Shoemaker runs the Robotics Program Office at the Army Research Laboratory. He's the military's go-to guy for the robots known generically as unmanned ground vehicles, or UGVs, and he understands better than anybody just how difficult it is to create vehicles that think for themselves rather than being operated by humans via remote control."It's really, really hard," he acknowledges."But I'm convinced that we're going to develop systems that work for a whole range of tactical missions, from patrolling a storage area to performing extremely challenging reconnaissance. And I don't think it's going to take another 20 years, either."
I still remember a big argument I had along with some of my friends at <a href="http://www.chacha.com/topic/myspace">myspace</a>. The topic was related with robots in the near future and what would be their contribution in the near future. One of them said that they would help the armies and all side by side so that things get pretty much easy. The other guy said that things won't work out that way and with the implementation of artificial intelligence; we would be suffering the fate like the movie terminator. What I believe is that it all depends on how we stand because ultimately it is we who have to answer for everything! Period!