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From cultural starvation to smart robots going through the motions

The trouble with art and science, as with all important matters, is the lack of choice that accompanies them. Today the masses are starved of cultural richness; many go through life with only two cultural reference points, Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein - one for art and one for science.

Under the terms of the celebrity trickle-down system of the last 30 years, this was supposed to be impossible. The famous duo ought long since to have been joined by Lord Archer and a famous architect or two, say Frank Gehry and Herzog & de Meuron. But has this process been observed?

Not at all. Instead we have been shown what might as well have been the Picasso-ised head of Angus Wilson's brother-in-law on a stamp, and another box of even more incomprehensible 'Roll over B Traven' T-shirts. This column has never been noted for marking time when it comes to taking a stab at the future, so I hurry to offer a robot intelligence report without further comment.

Most sane people agree that robots are the shape of things to come, but they don't always agree what shape that is. One long arm of the design profession holds out rigorously for a human shape and humanoid physical capabilities, like those developed by the Honda Corporation in Japan for its well-known Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility (ASIMO) robots, the latest of which has mastered an impressive number of routines by coming to terms with many of the usual obstacles of the human world.

However, the decision to humanise the ASIMOs was taken 18 years ago in 1986, when its development programme was launched, since when some unexpected limitations have emerged. For example, the design of ASIMOs was founded on the logic of a man-made environment shaped for humans, because it was believed that this would obviate the need for expensive and complicated ground-support systems for the robots' interface. In fact, this interface proved the most difficult design problem, taking 14 years to reach a point where the robot could climb or descend a staircase.

Similarly, there is not much evidence of useful work being done. At present, although there has been talk of trained ASIMO robots becoming aids to the disabled or 'sacrificial' firemen, eight of the 26 existing ASIMOs are leased to Japanese corporations for a reputed £100,000 a year, where they shake hands and bow politely to visitors - making use of their humanoid attributes rather than any of the artificial intelligence that might one day be grown from an ability to learn from experience.

Other problems are thrown up by the humanoid model for the robot of tomorrow, among them the whole question of size and weight. Today's ASIMOs are only 1.2m tall and weigh 52kg, while some of their predecessors stood over 2m tall and weighed in at 200kg. Size and weight not only determine the range of possible tasks, but also affect the robots' durability and terrain-crossing capability.

Sometimes a ludicrous image crosses one's mind: perhaps all ASIMOs are doing is prefiguring a world in which all robots get proper jobs and carry each other about in a homage to their human precursors. Or, in a heritage version, are played by two small robot boys in period dress struggling with an oversized sedan chair? To the best of my recollection, the most impressive of the audio-animatronic representations in recent years was the original version of the testimony of the American presidents at Walt Disney World in Florida, which dated from the 1960s. Not quite as capable as ASIMOs to be sure, but clearly of the same genre and disgracefully ignored today.

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