I, LawnBott

Science, technology, and life.
May 8 2008 12:18 PM

I, LawnBott

If I had a nickel for every time I've read the word "robot" in a headline about new technology, I'd ... well, given the current price of metals, I'd melt down all those nickels, sell the ingredients, and become a very rich man. Journalists and PR people use the word "robot" to mean anything from HAL to a remote-controlled toy car. Actually, robots come in various degrees. The revolution we're seeing in mechanization isn't so much in the proliferation of robots as in their increasing autonomy.

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Case in point: Two stories from this morning's news batch .

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First we have an AP story about a " Bum Bot " designed to disperse vagrants from an iffy neighborhood in Atlanta. It belongs to Rufus Terrill, a local bar owner and ex-Marine. The story says Terrill used to patrol the area on foot, but "guns were stuck in his face several times. His wife suggested he patrol a safer way - using a robot." In the AP photo, the robot looks like a small tank, about half as tall as Terrill. It weighs 300 pounds and has a camera and water cannon. (Terrill says he's never used the cannon.) The robot's exterior has been "nicked by rocks, bricks and other objects people Terrill was rousting have thrown at it."

The point of the robot, it seems, is to take the physical risks formerly taken by its human owner. Any guns that might previously have been stuck in his face now have to be pointed at his tank instead, which doesn't have quite the same effect. There's no report of the tank having been shot, but, as the story says, it has taken its share of rocks and bricks. That's fine. It's part of the plan. Sticks and stones may break my drones, but they can't hurt me.

In this way, the Bum Bot is a lot like the thousands of drones currently deployed by the U.S. military . The enemy can't kill American soldiers who patrol war zones from a safe distance via remotely-operated unmanned vehicles.

The tricky thing about drones, as I've noted before, is that they can desensitize you to the battlefield. I mean literally desensitize you: Your physical senses have no direct contact with what you're looking or shooting at. Can the same thing happen to civilians who use private security drones at home? Apparently so. "It's just like a video game," says Terrill, describing how he operates the Bum Bot. The Atlanta police warn that he might be prosecuted if he uses the water cannon. But there's no such constraint on the use of drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Iraq.

The chief constraint on the Bum Bot isn't legal or moral. It's technological. The Bum Bot isn't really a robot. It's controlled entirely by the handheld remote, and it has no voice other than Terrill's, which he projects through an integrated walkie-talkie. Without constant human direction, the machine does nothing.

If you want to get closer to the cutting edge of robotics, so to speak, you're better off looking at a technology that's already well-commercialized: robotic lawn mowers. Today's New York Times salutes a new product, the Kyodo  LawnBott LB3500 , which mows your lawn by itself. Here's the manufacturer's description :

It operates automatically, and autonomously by means of its intelligent computer and a perimeter cable. It can move freely within an enclosed area, detecting the faint signal transmitted by the perimeter cable located on the ground, defining the areas to be mowed; it can also work without a perimeter cable as working area is enclosed by a fence or small border at least 4 inches tall. ... [I]t leaves its docking station and starts mowing your yard in a random direction. It will mow in a straight line until it bumps into an obstacle, such as a tree or flower pot, or until it runs over its perimeter cable, then it stops, backs up, turns and takes off again.

Well, at least it needs a human to recharge its batteries, right?

Wrong. The company explains:

When the batteries start running low, or at the end of its cutting cycle, the mower will search out the perimeter cable and follow it back to its docking station to recharge. After charging, it heads back out on its own! ... With the new LawnBott, you have One Less Thing to Worry About .

Well, yes. But you also have one more thing to worry about: Your lawnmower running amok while you're at the office. No human hassle means no human control.

Kyodo says the LB3500 comes with enhanced safety features : "a higher sensitivity, free-floating, 360° bumper shell, blade stop proximity sensor, and an on-board alarm system should an unauthorized user pick up the Lawnbott." Still, we're talking about a slicing machine that runs around by itself and can't even be stopped by power depletion. LawnBotts.com points out that "robotic lawnmowers are many times safer than its manual counterparts just because you eliminate the human needing to be around it while it's operating." This is the same sense in which military drones are safer than manned vehicles and weapons: They protect their owners. But if you're not the owner, look out.

In the AP story about Terrill's bar, some of the locals complain that the Bum Bot is "intimidating." They have no idea what's coming.

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