AI On The Rise Weekly: Robotics Plays The Serious Part In Fukushima Clean-up and Space Exploration, UK Analyzes Supermart Technology Risks


As a result of combining great curiosity and keen research, artificial intelligence has taken great strides in 2012. It is a banner year for both Siri and Watson—the former being Apple’s secret sauce for iPhone 4s and the latter invading the stock market and healthcare industry. Google’s driverless car has also hit the roads and is on its way to the market. In Taiwan, they are using robots to aid labor problems and costs.

Graduate level courses in artificial intelligence being offered online are gaining phenomenal traction. Last year, there were about 160,000 enrollees from 190 countries. This goes to prove that interests on AI are mounting. The military has also exploited the use of AI to propel their war vehicles and several other machineries. And, the long list goes on.

This week’s AI On The Rise captures various cornerstones of artificial intelligence, it’s limitations vs human’s capacity and how mimicking distinctly human processes can result to advanced technologies.

The Fukushima Clean-up

The 9.03 magnitude Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March of 2011 took more than 15,000 lives and injured countless of people. There were nearly 130,000 buildings that collapsed. The losses from the earthquake amounted to US$14.5 to $34.6 billion. World Bank estimated the economic losses to be at US$235 billion, the most expensive disaster in history of mankind. When the tremors stopped, it revealed another life-threatening incident—the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant experienced a series of meltdowns, equipment failures and radioactive materials leak. It was deemed as the largest nuclear catastrophe after Chernobyl in 1986.

The damage to the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant is so enormous that up until today, repairs are being implemented. The clean-up has now become a venue for robotics competition. Well, this is not surprising as Japan is deemed to be the birthplace of modern-day robots.

In a BBC article, it was mentioned that firms like Mitsubishi, Hitachi and Toshiba are partaking to drive the clean-up faster. For many, this is better than sending people to repair the damages of the nuclear power plant. But according to deputy head of the Intelligent Systems and Networks Group at Imperial College London, Jeremy Pitt, remote controlled machines may not successfully substitute humans in such harsh conditions.

“Operating in extreme environments requires a remarkable range of human skills that might otherwise be taken for granted.”

“Fundamentally, instead of programming a robot to follow a precise series of actions, in open environments the requirement is to programme it to improvise.”

“This requires a fusion of conscious reasoning mechanisms, like learning, with subconscious reasoning mechanisms.”

Mark Clark, Qinetiq’s spokesperson, a firm participating in the “robot race” to clean-up Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, says it’s always a compromise to use robots for similar situations. Thus, these machines have to be engineered to carry out highly specific tasks. Clark recommends,

“If nuclear robots start leaking hydraulic fluid, they send an alarm before they fail so they can be quickly recovered. Others have the capability to shed or drop off parts of their manipulators so if they get caught up in debris they jettison the trapping section of robot, thus freeing them from the obstruction.”

Humanoid in Outer Space

Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata will take the command post in the International Space Station in 2013. He will take with him a little help in a form of a humanoid robot. An undisclosed group of companies in Japan are putting their resources together to come up with doll-like machines that speak Japanese. These robots are also expected to recognize faces and perform simple experiment tasks.

Takahashi, a University of Tokyo researcher who founded the humanoid robot company Robo Garage explained why having a robot will keep Wakata company while alone in outer space.

“Only a few people use [iPhone voice recognition software] Siri in Japan because we are uncomfortable to talk to square gadgets. But we sometimes talk to our pets, even if they’re a turtle or a fish.”

“We talk to these animals because we can feel some kind of life to them that we cannot with the iPhone. So what we are doing for the Kibo robot is to encourage people to be willing to communicate with such things.”

The Fear of Robots

Are we going to be ruled by supersmart technology one day? What is considered to be an artificial intelligence fiction is now being studied by Philosophers and scientists at Britain’s Cambridge University. The experts are venturing in a project that will put up Center for the Study of Existential Risk to evaluate the possibility and prevent AI to threaten humanity’s existence.

“In the case of artificial intelligence, it seems a reasonable prediction that some time in this or the next century intelligence will escape from the constraints of biology,” Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price said.

I could not imagine Resident Evil, Minority Report, and Terminator coming into reality.  Or at least, not in my lifetime.