This Week In Bots: Robo-Crime And Robo-Punishment

Robots are edging closer to our everyday lives all the time. They bring the promise of social change, but they may also enable a whole new phenomenon: Robot-mediated lawbreaking.



Bot Vid: Transformers, For Real

Transformers may be robots in disguise, but the kids’ toys that drive the franchise have never been really robotic. There’s always been a lot of “pull that, twist this, flip the other” dextrous fingerwork required to get the plastic parts to actually transform. With that in mind (yes, stop being nostalgic about your childhood!) watch this, courtesy of Plastic Pals. It’s by Kenji Ishida and JS Robotics and is the latest in a series of eight real, self-transforming robots. No word on it becoming a real product, but you never know–it’s amazing enough for someone to try.

Bot Vid: Gundam, For Real

Tiny desktop real-transformer bots? Pah. This is Vaudeville, again thanks to Plastic Pals, a 13-foot-high (yes, 13 feet…or about two David Bowies) Gundam-style combat robot. It has a pilot inside. Made by Suidobashi Heavy Industry, this thing is actually supposed to go on sale to the robot-buying public for…well, for either reenacting some serious anime fantasies or squashing opposing armies on the battlefield–it’s not exactly the kind of vehicle you’d pop to the store in to get a pint of milk.


Bot Vid: Robot Abuse

Kicking a robot isn’t necessarily grounds for a new law against robot abuse: It’s a way that often gets used to show how clever at balancing a robot can be. And that’s what this next clip is all about: A new design of robot leg fitted to a walking bipedal android in Japan that uses new fast electrical acutators to manage the balancing feat instead of pneumatic ones. It’s all part of research to develop smarter, stronger, and more capable walking robots, and as the Automaton blog points out, the robot legs will get a body and arms at some point so they can compete in DARPA’s Robotics Challenge.


Bot News

Opportunity Rolls On Mars, Again. It’s the robot that just keeps on keeping on: Mars rover Opportunity has now awoken from its safe slumber during the Martian winter, where it parked for months to gather as much solar energy from the weak sun as possible, and is now rolling across the terrain again in search of new scientific discoveries in Endeavour crater. It’s worth remembering that the mission was scheduled for 90 days, back in 2004. NASA’s next rover, Curiosity, will join Opportunity on Mars in August.

Navy Bots. The U.S. Navy hasn’t been as smart at minesweeping as you may think–post WWII it seems a lot of the responsibility for cleaning up sea mines was taken up by allies. Now the Navy wants to leap to the 21st century, and is planning on using cheaper and more sophisticated means of finding and tackling dangerous mines using robots like the automatic 19-foot-long Knifefish. Compared to the remote-piloted 1990s-era mini subs the Navy’s been using, the Knifefish machines are cleverer and need less human interaction. They’ll be in service starting in 2016.

Trilingual Chatty Vacuum. Love your Roomba but never feel like it delivers when it comes to, you know, conversation? Then Sharp may have the robot vacuum cleaner for you! It’s called Cocorobo, and as well as sucking up the grime from your floors it also purifies the air, sends snaps it takes to your cellphone as a security service, and can chat to you. In three languages. The speech aspect is really just for fun, but it’s a harbinger of many more talkative robot gadgets, we suspect. 

Bot Futures: Robot Crime

Malware and viruses may be the scourge of home computing nowadays, but what happens when robots are part of our everyday life? These machines are going to have sophisticated computers inside and almost certainly rely on wireless communications to keep in touch with the digital world, so they’ll be susceptible to virus infection, even perhaps able to take remote instruction from a nefarious hacker…and thus the strange notion of robot crime is revealed, because an out-of-control robot is far scarier than a mere digital PC virus that eats your files.


But the BBC has an article that illuminates a wholly different, and potentially much more scary aspect of robot crime that relates to avatars and telepresence–the simple robot technology used to pop your video-call image atop a robot that rolls around offices so you can remotely attend meetings “in person,” as it were. Blending robotic tech, advanced sensors, the science of haptics, and clever computer imagery, telepresence is poised to evolve into a whole new thing thanks to work in the EU–a project called beaming is trying to let telepresent visitors dial in to a remote location and actually feel completely immersed in the environment there. You’d probably be wearing a haptic feedback suit and VR goggles, and your telepresent self would be a robot that interacts with real people.

Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? And there are all sorts of incredible possibilities from “real feel” theater and film productions to remote-controlled space robots. But there’s also the scope for different types of robot crime. What would happen if a “beamed” robot hurt someone deliberately, using the strength of its synthetic limbs to cause harm? Could a telepresent robot be used to commit sexual assault, or perhaps even rape? Is there a crazy chance a telepresent robot could actually be used to commit murder?

The matters sound both ridiculous and grave at the same time, but they illuminate a certain flaw in our legal system. Crimes such as these would be bad enough as described, but what if a hacker used someone else’s avatar as the interface to a telepresent robot? The legal ramifications of determining blame could be incredibly tricky, resulting in all sorts of complications and reputational damage to the innocent party. And what happens if a telepresent crime was carried out by an operator in another country, perhaps someone skilled enough to digitally skip their apparent location around the globe?

We don’t have to worry about this yet, as telepresence is in its infancy and “beaming” is a research phenomenon far from being publicly available. But even with our current telepresence tech we can begin to ponder one crime: What happens if a telepresent robot was used to publicly voice opinions that are politically unacceptable as it rolled the streets of, for example, China?

[Image: Flickr user Barabeke]

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)