Contests to promote technology innovation have a long and illustrious history. Perhaps most notable was the Schneider Trophy of the first third of the twentieth century. Its purpose was aviation technology development, and the venue was racing seaplanes. The result was development of the most advanced airframes and engines of the pre-WWII era, which helped the Allies dominate the skies of Europe throughout most of the war years.
More recently, the DARPA Grand Challenge pushed development of driverless vehicles to the point where they are now technically viable. The Ansari X Prize led to development of relatively inexpensive re-usable space vehicles.
Now, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has issued the DARPA Robotics Challenge focusing on mobile autonomous robots. The Agency aims to develop robots for "complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments." Basically, for disaster relief.
If you've been following this blog, you'll see this challenge has positive hits on two of the Three Ds: dirty and dangerous. It also scores well on what I called "Charlie's Razor" last fall, which asks the question "Is it fun?" Disaster relief can be called a number of things, but I don't think sifting through wreckage in search of mangled, bleeding flesh that used to be nice people comes under the rubric of "fun." I base this assessment on comments I've heard from people who've done it. If it's not fun for humans, it's a potential task for robots.
So, developing robotic technology for use in disaster relief can be confidently classed as a "Good Thing."
I'm ambivalent about another feature incorporated into the Robotics Challenge, though. The wording specifically mentions the robots should be capable of using tools specifically intended for use by humans.
On the plus side, human-useable tools are all over the place, and would likely be more available to disaster-relief robots than specialized robot-useable tools. On the minus side, the wording builds into the challenge a bias toward humanoid robots.
As I have mentioned before, constraining a robot's design to humanoid form is generally a mistake. In the few situations where human shape is the best solution in a particular problem, a careful designer will gravitate to it for technical reasons. In the vast majority of situations, however, androids will be a sub-optimal solution.
Does requiring a robot to use human tools necessarily lead to an android solution? I think not. I am concerned, however, that too many designers taking up the Challenge will mistake the wording for a requirement for android design. It's simple and obvious, so it takes a conscious effort to overlook it in favor of thinking outside the box, and thinking outside the box is what the Challenge is all about.
C.G. Masi has been blogging about technology and society since 2006. In a career spanning more than a quarter century, he has written more than 400 articles for scholarly and technical journals, and six novels dealing with automation's place in technically advanced society. For more information, visit www.cgmasi.com.