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Robots in space

By: | October 16, 2013

Engineering our future friends

Renate Pohl
Breathing Space features inhalations and exhalations on the space industry from a humanities perspective.

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This December, Koichi Wakata will become the first Japanese commander of the International Space Station. Just in case that isn’t cool enough, he’ll also become the first person to speak with a robot in space. His future robot companion, an adorable little humanoid named Kirobo (based on the Japanese words for “robot” and “hope”), is just over a foot tall, appears to be cousin to Astro Boy, and is currently in orbit awaiting Wakata’s arrival. Kirobo spoke his first words in space this past August, marking a new milestone in both the space industry and social robotics with a conservative and endearing choice of words. The speech held echoes of Neil Armstrong, translated from the original Japanese as “On August 21, 2013, a robot took one small step toward a brighter future for all.” At only 13 inches in height, that is one tiny step indeed.

The Kibo Robot (Kirobo) project stands apart from the more obviously practical non-humanoid robots currently hard at work on the ISS. The arm-shaped Canadarm2, JEM-RMS, ERA, and the “space handyman” Dextre are vital to the running and maintenance of the ISS, performing everything from docking spacecraft to carrying astronauts on spacewalks. As useful as these systems are, they could never be described as cute. However, the much-desired dexterity of these systems is also reflected in the design of the first, and only other, humanoid robot to grace the space environment, NASA’s Robotnaut 2. While more of a clunker than a charmer, Robonaut 2 (and its strange and slightly creepy mythical-robo incarnation, Centaur 2) represent first attempts to incorporate a psychological, social element into space robotics. Nevertheless, it is the practical element that is foremost in NASA’s description of the recently-legged android.

Having a humanoid robot on board a space mission gives astronauts a break from particularly dangerous, dull, or repetitive tasks. Sending robots as an initial setup or exploratory team to safely pave the way for humans seems like the logical thing to do. It is very likely that future successful space missions will have humans and robots working side-by-side on a regular basis. So what type of robots are we creating?

Robots trials and biomimicry

While the number of humanoid robots working in space is limited to a grand total of two (three if you count Kirobo’s equally darling backup crew member, Mirata), there are a number of other humanoid robots in development. Currently in progress but not launched into space are Russia’s Roscosmos SAR-400 and two German bots: Justin from DLR, the German Aerospace Center and AILA from DFKI, the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence. In addition, the DARPA Robotics Challenge, which culminates this December in robot team trials, has inspired the development of over a dozen robots with the ability to operate a vehicle, use human-friendly hand tools, and generally be compatible with the human environment.

Robots are also being developed with human characteristics that go beyond physical motion, delving into the realm of the senses. At Tachi Lab, the Telesar V robotic “slave” robot is linked to the human “master” via haptic (touch) sensation. The less sinister-sounding biomimetics work of Professor Joseph Ayers of Northwestern University is attempting to infuse robots with a sense of smell.

Other biological forms are also inspiring robotic design. The European Space Agency is working with the Scandinavian research organization SINTEF to develop a snake robot model that could potentially improve our exploration of other planets. The University of Colorado Correll Lab is experimenting with robotic “Droplets” that mimic the swarming behaviour of bees or ants, an approach that could well be applied to off-earth spacecraft manufacture and repair.

The desire to program robots with autonomous choice-making behaviour is also at play in the work of several teams attempting to build robots that can mimic scientific curiosity. With so much scientific work being done to create such an array of biologically inspired, communicative, curious, autonomous beings, we are surely on the verge of creating a new technological society. What are the consequences of playing god to androids?

Robots Gone Wild

Worst case scenarios that have been the topic of much science fiction include robot wars, undesired immortality, cybernetics wiping out the human race, widespread unemployment, environmental destruction, and robots turning on humans. With current work in progress such as the Telesar-V, that follows a master-and-slave concept, now is also the time to be questioning how we think and feel about the robotic beings that we are creating. Do we wish to create slaves and machines of war, or colleagues and friends? If we desire robots to have empathy for humanity, should we not have empathy for them?

Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov created and revised the Three Laws of Robotics in 1942, outlining a system for ideal robot behaviour based on the “don’t harm humans” principle. Although these Three Laws are still discussed and parodied, the realities and complexity of robo-ethics have outgrown this initial work. The setting of moral and legal codes regarding autonomous artificial intelligence continues to be a subject for inquiry and debate in a number of arenas.

Cultivating compassionate droids

While the US Department of Defence sets out policies that (hopefully) help to control potential robot wars, it is events like the upcoming International Conference on Social Robotics in Bristol, UK and the International Workshop on Developmental Social Robotics in Tokyo, Japan that open the debate to the general public as well as scientists and developers. With recent developments in robots as caregivers to the elderly and robot surgeons needing good bedside manners, workshops on compassion for companion robots can’t come too soon.

For those not working in the fields of robotics, ethics, or law and policy, it is the realm of art that still gives us an opportunity to explore our relationships with robots. The Japan Society and Japan Foundation completed a six-city tour of North America this past spring of two short plays entitled Sayonara and I, Worker. These plays featured robot performers alongside human performers. One touching scene in I, Worker shows a friendly droid apologizing for mistakenly bringing up the subject of babies to a childless woman. It is the type of programmed empathy for the human condition that is hard to imagine being contrived in a computer lab alone, but which artists consistently strive to explore. We can understand this type of staged empathy as a give-and-take scenario that happens not just during critical moments of war, but in the household moments, the subtle heartbreaks of everyday. It is, perhaps, the clearest and simplest explanation for why robots need our compassion as much as we need theirs. It also may explain why Kirobo is so gosh darn cute.

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