Am I the only one who believes it's a sad commentary on our society that when someone thinks, "Hey, wouldn't it be awesome to have a major robot competition in front of a large audience?" the very first idea that comes to the organizers' minds when they try to figure out the contest's format and rules is, "Yeah, how about if we have them brutally battle each other, preferably to the death?" I've got to believe that, with all of the creativity in the world, we could come up with a much more productive and beneficial basis for the robots' competition, while still making it entertaining for the masses or, more importantly, for me.
A June 18, 2006, PCMag.com article described the recent RoboGames, which used to be called RoboOlympics, as "more of a good old American demolition derby" than the "cybernetic gladiators" that the event's name suggests. This is nothing new. A few years ago, there was television show, BattleBots, featuring robot competitions that were very much like the article's description of RoboGames. The article didn't mention BattleBots, so, for all I know, one may be a direct derivative of the other.
I don't know if BattleBots is still running, but my recollection of the program is that remote-controlled robots, which were usually quite powerful and outfitted with very fierce weapons, were placed into a ring. Just to clarify, I mean a boxing-style ring in that it was square rather than, say, wedding ring-shaped. The audience was protected by Plexiglas walls around the competition area. Using the remote controls, the robots' owners attempted to employ their machine's weapons and ramming power to do the worst to the opponent robot, while avoiding having the worst being done to theirs.
Are we so addicted to violence that can't we find an engaging and enjoyable way for robots to compete for good, rather than evil?
To be fair, I should mention that there are robot competitions that don't involve getting machines to beat the crap out of each other. For example, for a few years now, the U.S. Defense Department has sponsored the DARPA Grand Challenge, in which self-guided vehicles have to traverse a difficult course, without help from humans other than the robot's construction; no remote controls are allowed. I like the objective of this challenge because, once these capabilities are perfected and mass marketed, my car will be able to find me in a parking lot, rather than me having to hunt for it. Nonetheless, these contests typically garner just a few paragraphs in the paper, not massive television or live audiences. No, no, that's not exciting enough for us. If a robot isn't doing to another robot—and doing it to the extreme—something that the spectators would get arrested for if they did it to each other, the audience quickly loses interest.
The battling bots alliteration is a pleasing to the ear, but if the organizers of these events want some ideas for a competition that would be more appropriate for a kinder, gentler world, they should ask me. There are a great many things that robots could do that would be of tremendous benefit to humans, but which they are not yet doing or even capable of doing. A good, old-fashioned contest, preferably with a large and/or prestigious prize would help to provide the necessary incentive for inventors to develop automatons capable of providing those benefits. The following are a few of my suggestions:
Robots compete to see which one can brew the best-tasting cup of coffee and deliver it up a set of stairs, without spilling a drop, to a grumpy slug of a human who is struggling hard to get out of bed in the morning. Any robot that brews decaf under such circumstances would be disqualified immediately.
I'd volunteer to be the caffeine recipient. If there's a camera mounted on the robot, please have it knock before coming into my bedroom.
The robots in this competition race against the clock. They're placed in a home that has at least one set of stairs. They then compete, one at a time, to see which one can thoroughly vacuum all of the floors and stairs and dust all of the furniture in the shortest amount of time. There would be bonus points for any robot that also cleaned the refrigerator or yelled obscenities before hanging up on telemarketers.
I'm one of the world's all-time great slobs (it's amazing I'm still single, isn't it?), so I wouldn't be a very good judge for this contest, but I'd be willing to let the event organizers use my place as the venue.
Robots with fully functioning arms and legs, as well as advanced speech and musical instrument synthesizers, sing, dance, and play their electronic hearts out in front of an audience comprised solely of computers. The computers, which score the robots' performances based on style, grace, musical abilities, and showmanship, pick a winner while we humans watch a move, take in a concert, or go for a long walk in the park, totally ignoring the Automaton Idol contest and the declaration of the winner.
I want absolutely nothing to do with the staging of this one unless there is an exceptionally large financial prize involved and a way for me to cash in on it.
I'm particularly proud of this concept because it combines so many valuable cyber skills. The robot contestants are set free to roam the country far and wide searching for recently deceased gun lobbyists. This being a peaceful contest, the machines are not allowed to play any part in the lobbyists' demise. Accessing online obituary and other databases to obtain information that will assist them in their quest and using sensors to detect molecules given off by decaying bodies are to be encouraged.
The winner will be the first robot to find a deceased lobbyist, pry a gun from his cold, dead hands, and beat said gun into plowshares. A special $100,000 Irony Prize will be added to the purse if the death was due to a gun accident or homicide.
I would agree to play a role in this event only if I can be assured that gun enthusiasts will not have access to my identity or address.
Anatomically Correct AndroidAntics
I know that my premise in this week's column is the promotion of a more peaceful competition than what's generally in the world today, but I'd fight hard, possibly drawing blood, to win the honor to referee this one. And I'd like a date with the female android champion.