After all of the furore over cloud-security recently it is alarming that robotics engineers have created software that is designed to allow robots to operate remotely using the cloud. If the technology is successful it may lead to legions of robots living amongst us performing day to day chores, leaving us with more time to develop new ways they can do jobs for us. It is one cloud-based database we really don't want some fun-loving hacker playing with.
If you watched the popular US crime drama Numbers, youmay well remember the episode First Law in which a computer that supposedly possesses full Artificial Intelligence (AI) kills a researcher in the lab. The computer even passes the famous Turing test to determine it is conscious.
In the episode Charlie Epps, pre-eminent maths scholar and FBI crime-fighting consultant, eventually works out that the computer was just connected to the web and possessed an algorithm to allow it to determine the best possible answer using the vast information archived online. The murder was conducted by a technician who was involved in the project who used the supposed artificial intelligence of the computer as a cover.
Well now advances in robotics have made this reality a little bit closer. Not the murdering technician part, we hope. Rather the ability for robots (or computers) to source information from each other through the internet to allow them to solve complex issues has become a reality thanks to researchers working on the European Robo Earth project which began in 2011.
They have created the Rapyuta database which allows robots to store memories of how they deal with events in a central database. The current norm is for each robot to have to learn how to interact with its surroundings in its own idiosyncratic way. Rapyuta reduces the necessity for robots to do this by allowing them to access information from a remote, wireless storage base through the cloud so they can see how other robots have dealt with similar situations in the past.
In addition to allowing robots to share learning it will also allow robots to do more computations faster, as they will not need to carry complex computational equipment with them, they can wirelessly link direct to the database and the servers there to have the computations completed remotely.
"On-board computation reduces mobility and increases cost. As wireless data speeds increase more and more robotic thinking could be offloaded to the web, " said Dr Heico Sandee, Robo Earth program manager at the Dutch University of Technology in Eindhoven.
As wireless speeds increase the complexity of tasks that robots will be able to complete quickly will also increase, until it is feasible that web connectivity will enable robots to pass the Turing test (an interesting aside for those of a philosophical persuasion, is it genuinely passing the Turing test if you are using collaborative information).
While robot engineers are seeing this in a huge step forward towards allowing robots interact in the world beyond workshops and other highly controlled environments there is a concern that using cloud based technologies will be an open invite to hackers who want to put their own personal touches to the programming of millions of robots around the world.
Using the cloud as a resource is going to enable a lot of remote access for computers and may allow robots to drive our cars, do our house work or walk our dogs, but we need to ensure that the fictional murders in programmes like Numbers remain a fiction.