The other day I was practicing my two-handed backhand against a tennis ball machine. I've played tennis since I was a kid, but I started out with a one-handed backhand and it takes some work to switch. I set the ball machine to a narrow-random mode for some variety and started hitting.

Just so you can imagine the scene as I saw it, the ball machine has a black plastic exterior and it's about four-feet tall. It swivels left-right at its midsection. On the random setting it seems as if it's just messing with you. There is some variability in timing between balls because of the nature of the mechanical feeder on the top. When you add that to the programmed left-right randomness it gives the impression of being playful, just yanking you around for fun.

So there I am, hitting ball after ball, just me and the machine. No other human was anywhere near. I was having a great time, working up a sweat, improving my skills. . .

And then it occurred to me.

I . . . have a . . . robot friend.

The ball machine isn't intelligent in a classic sense. It was merely random. But humans are fairly random too, or so they seem, because we can't predict exactly what one might do next in any given situation. I don't even know what sentence I will type next. It's not random, but it seems that way because it is so unpredictable.

You all know my view that humans are simply moist robots, so for me, the difference between this tennis robot and a human was freakishly small. I was even responding to the robot in an emotional way. I felt a bit of a connection. Humans bond through shared activities and I was feeling it.

I imagine you're all dismissing this as a stretch. We're surrounded by machines that aren't entirely predictable and they don't feel alive. I'm typing this at my computer that surprised me half-a-dozen times already this morning. But my computer doesn't feel alive to me. Nor does my toaster, no matter how surprised I am its results. Those machines don't feel like the future. They are mere tools. The ball machine on the other hand registers in my lizard brain as a primitive form of life, in part because of its physical dimensions, and partly because of its relentless randomness. It makes humans seem a bit less special.

I saw a clip from TED (can't find it now) in which a guy tosses tennis balls at a toy helicopter that has a tennis racket strapped to it. The toy adjusts its position autonomously and returns the ball to the human, over and over. At this point in history the only thing that prevents me from having a full three-set tennis match with an anthropomorphic robot is the expense. The technology has arrived.

My prediction is that within the next five years each of you will have your own Holy $#!t moment with a robot that registers as freakishly intelligent. It's a cool feeling. It feels like the future.

Or have you already had the experience? Let me know in the comments.

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May 1, 2013
May 1, 2013
already there - it was a artificial intelligence chat window demo - freakishly real (though to be fair, there's not a lot of dimensions in everyday chat technology). I think the easier way to get to a freakishly real moment would be to program artificial intelligence for a child character - if it messes up, no one will notice..
Apr 17, 2013
Man, I've been robot crazy all this past week... There's a guy in France who is open-sourcing his "InMoov" robot design. It's a fully-articulated full-size human robot, and he's giving away the STL files (for 3D printers, the files you print) to make your own.

So, it seems like a few things would make personal humanoid robotics daunting for the hobbyist / consumer:

First, is the actual physical robot. Solved. Can be made for a couple thousand dollars now, even with a margin of profit.

Second, is the operating system. Solved. We have Linux and BSD, both free to use and open sourced for any modification needed.

Third, is computer vision -- probably the hardest thing to program, and requiring the most advanced computer skills. Solved. OpenCV is an open source software development library that makes computer vision (relatively) easy (-ier) to program.

All of these are open-source technologies, which means that the vast hobbyist/developer resources of the world can start making this a REAL THING!
Apr 16, 2013
Scott, I think you saw the Ted talk from the people at ETH Zurich.

They've done other amazing work, like this Skynet demo
and pole dancing

Imagine adding motorized wheels and a kinect to http://www.tennisrobot.com
I'd dress mine up like Rosie the Robot from the Jetsons cartoon.
Apr 13, 2013
Most people will admit that they are not nearly as smart as their coffee maker. And the rest should get around to admitting it. Talk about a robot friend...
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Apr 11, 2013
For starters, you're going in the wrong direction with the backhand -- two-handed to one, not the other way around, unless you're becoming feeble... need I remind you Federer, Gasquet, Kuartan, Haas, !$%*!$%*!$
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 11, 2013
My kids accuse me of loving my MacBook Pro more than them. They say, in a fire, I'd rescue my laptop first and then go back for them. That's ridiculous. Not the part about my rescuing my laptop first. That's obvious. The part about my needing to go back for them is what's ridiculous. They're all teenagers. And athletes. They don't need my help.

I read about the dramatic decline in PC sales. That's totally understandable. Every time I use a PC, I want to throw it out the window - including the Windows Ultrabooks I've tried. My MacBook on the other hand... Totally different story. Talk about your sleek, responsive, helpful machines. Solid state drive. Retina display monitor. 5lbs. I can create a quick promotional videos for one of the programs I volunteer with. I can mock up interactive demos to show co-workers WTF I'm talking about - because most people have to see it to understand it.

It rarely crashes. I can leave PowerPoint, Photoshop, DreamWeaver, Captivate, Word, Illustrator and Outlook open at the same time and switch back and forth between them without a problem.

This is what a computer should be. (No I don't work for Apple. I don't love all their products, but my MacBook pro is my robot friend, unpaid business partner and repository of life experiences.

Apr 11, 2013
Just yesterday my elderly neighbour tried to save my mobile number on his. The phone displayed a message saying the number was already entered and displayed my name and number.
The guy was so impressed he kept on raving about it to the next three people he met. "Wow, what technology. It came to know I had already entered it. Number already exists, it said, fantastic, etc, etc"

Likewise, if a machine with a spring and cam which throws balls makes you think of robots then I guess you are easily impressed. This kind of thing could have been built in the 1910s, maybe even earlier.

But give me a machine that sweeps and mops the floor efficiently,a machine that irons my clothes, a machine that does small repairs around the house, a machine that drives my car and particularly in India, a machine that fills forms and stands in queues for me and I will be going around saying Holy$#!t.

And if all this was capable of being done by just one machine, I would seriously consider hugging and kissing it.
Apr 11, 2013
Anfauglir: [I bet if the ball serving machine also tossed out random phrases as it served like "get ready for a biggie" and "you'll never get to this one!" it would be effectively entirely indistinguishable from a human friend, so far as your tennis experience goes. ]

Ugh. I hope not. I hate hate HATE applications that have "humanizing" responses built in to them. There is nothing that makes something seem less human (to me) than preprogrammed phrases. The whole point of polite nothings is to acknowledge the other person's importance to you, at least at that very moment. A preprogrammed response is a FAKE acknowledgement.

It is the lack of contextual choice that is the difference. If I yell at a human, I will get a different response than if I treat them with respect. As anyone who has ever walked past my office knows, though, I can scream at my computer as much as I want and it won't react any differently. Unfortunately.

For a similar reason, Scott, I think your definition of a "robot friend" is lacking. You may have had an emotional reaction to the machine, but if the machine isn't having an emotional response back, it's not the same thing as playing with a friend. It's similar to the reason I spent hours playing "Pretty Pretty Princess" with my daughter when she was younger. I enjoyed it because SHE enjoyed it.

The best definition of love I ever heard is, "Love is when another person's happiness is more important to you than your own." If you aren't capable of influencing the machine's happiness, you can't have a personal relationship with it; all you are doing is projecting your own feelings onto it. You might as well be having a conversation with yourself in a mirror.

(And, yah, yah, yah, we're all just robots giving preprogrammed responses. Philosophically, that's a pointless argument. We can only act on the data that we have.)
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Apr 11, 2013
It's a guy thing. Men bond emotionally with any device that consists of a multiplicity of parts working in unison to accomplish a task. Women, on the other hand bond with inanimate objects. Observe couples in a jewelry store. The men always gravitate toward the watches and clocks then when their women fawns over a [fill in the blank with a piece of jewelry] watch men's eyes glaze over as they pretend to care.
Apr 11, 2013
I suspect that a big part of why the ball machine or the Neato feel alive, and the PC/toaster doesn't, is two things. Movement and Vocalisation.

People move and people talk. A machine that doesn't do one of those will not feel as human. A machine that does neither will not.

I bet if the ball serving machine also tossed out random phrases as it served like "get ready for a biggie" and "you'll never get to this one!" it would be effectively entirely indistinguishable from a human friend, so far as your tennis experience goes.
Apr 11, 2013
I can't wait... I'm going to have me a plantation.
Apr 11, 2013
Thinking of the Twilight Zone episode where William Shatner thought the tabletop fortune machine in a diner was actually guiding him. And a fabled TV show of the 50s, "The Continental," where a suave Frenchman romanced his audience during what we'd now call a virtual date, always speaking directly to the camera. And those computer programs that seemed to hold up their end of a typed conversation. It's the illusion of awareness as well as interaction we respond to.

Of course the illusion is getting better and better. I anticipate totally automated customer service that replaces pre-recorded human voices with totally synthetic ones, programmed to modulate in response to your tone while asking the usual questions and imparting the usual answers (chipper and efficient if you're calm and businesslike; reassuring if you're upset; apologetic and submissive if you're ticked).

On a simpler level, devices likely to malfunction or underperform can be designed to look and behave like babies or puppies to exploit our instinct to cut slack for the small and cute (you already see this in toys). Imagine your car whimpering piteously instead of flashing a maintenance light. Or an audibly ill Siri pleading to be put out of her misery just as the new iPhone becomes available.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 11, 2013
I had my turning point years ago, allbeit in a slightly differnet way:

The robot was a CNC-machine that I'm trying to program.

The machine did not feel as a friend, but as an enemy.

It had a bad day. Things that normally work without any problem, failed everytime. Other things were taking much longer then they use to. The next day the machine felt better. Everything worked fine again, and I DID NOT DO ANYTHING TO BRING THIS ABOUT. Sometimes it is spooky. I just write it off as "one of the things I don't understand'.
Apr 11, 2013
Scott, why can't I see my own posts unless I log in?
Apr 10, 2013
I highly recommend the movie "Robot & Frank". It's RIGHT up your alley and was just adding to Amazon's streaming service.

Prediction: you know how in a movie from pre-1995, nobody is using cell phone and it makes the movie seem to quaint? "Oh look, John McClane is using a walkie-talkie." In...20?...years...the robot will seem like the cell phone in a movie. E.g. they will be so pronounced and adopted so quickly, that it will seem borderline silly to not have them everywhere. Also, the self driving car.
Apr 10, 2013
OK, now you've confused me. If we're all meat robots, then any interaction with another human being is an interaction between two robots, by your definition. Isn't it?

So what's the big deal with you having warm fuzzies about your tennis ball machine? It's just a dumber version of you, right? On the other hand, it has more stamina than you do, since it can keep throwing balls until your arm falls off from overuse. So in a way, that robot is superior to the meat robot known as Scott Adams.

If that's so, then by what right can we justifiably kill a robot? If you say it should not be illegal to kill a robot, then by what right can we restrict the right of one meat robot to dissasemble another meat robot?

I'd like to see you write a column advocating your position on the law as it relates to human beings versus robots. At what point does a robot become enough of an entity to cover it under human law? If I write a program so that every time I try to disconnect a peripheral from my computer, or try to turn it off, It cues up an MP3 file that screams, "Stop! You're killing me!" does that mean that it has just become enough of a non-meat robot to be protected by law?

Not only that, but if reality is just an illusion, then what does any of this matter? We're not really here, anyway, but just a giant computer program. Or something.

So let me summarize: we're not really here, but if we were, then we're not really people, we're robots, but somehow we're superior to non-meat robots in some way, so we can kill other robots but not robots that are made of meat, unless they are the less sentient meat robots we call 'animals,' in which case it's OK to kill them so we can eat them.

OK, I think I understand your philosophy now. Thanks for clearing that up.
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Apr 10, 2013
Of course if robots can be your friend, one is going to be your idiot friend.


(It involves a Roomba)
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 10, 2013
This reminds me of a classic cartoon depicting an empty classroom. There is a loudspeaker on the lectern, and all the desks have tape recorders on them.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 10, 2013
Switching to two-handed backhand due to shoulder problems. Would love to have a robotic tennis partner that can adjust its skill level to play just slightly better than me but with a degree of randomness that allows me the opportunity (or belief) to win. As a fomer soldier, I view other machines such as my guns as simply an extension of myself (I still go the the shooting range whenever I have the time) but have an emotional attachement to my guns much like a favorite pet (no two guns are exactly alike). I'm not sure about a robotic sex partner as the other post mentions...on one hand, makes perfect sense. You would be in complete control but just random enough for it to feel alive. Best of all, no nagging, no demands for attention, no cost beyond the initial up-front cost plus perhaps a little maintenance. However at the end of the day, it doesn't nag or demand attention or do all those terrible things which makes us all human. Then I am left with the conclusion that I wont ever be fully emotionally connected with a robot. "Hey honey, can you get me a Coke?" (reference to the movie "Cherry 2000").
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