When covering a Lego League tournament last month in Dobson, I was impressed by what was occurring.
About 170 middle-school-age students were gathered at Surry Community College to display different projects that involved creating robot-like devices to perform a variety of tasks.
I saw bright young faces of kids using programs on a computer to control movements of their robots. Then their expressions of joy and excitement when the devices actually did what they were supposed to, such as picking up and moving objects.
The youths seemed to be having a good time, which was coupled with the fact that they also were learning math, engineering, science and other skills which will benefit them in future jobs involving specialized technology. And one such field of endeavor is most certainly the growing robotics industry.
Now when I hear the word “robot,” I recall my early days of exposure to those mechanized creations through comic books and science fiction movies. Often those robots were concocted by some mad scientist as part of his plan to take over the world.
The robots featured in movie and television productions back then usually were clanky and clunky with no personalities, lacking the ability to speak.
This evolved into robots being able to talk on TV programs, such as the one on “Lost in Space” and later in the “Star Wars” movie in the form of the lovable R2-D2 and C-3PO. Not only were such robots talkative, they tended to be sarcastic from time to time, which in retrospect should have been the first red flag raised regarding fear for the future in terms of robot evolution.
Fast-forwarding to 2017, this technology seems to be at an all-time high, and growing, evidenced not only by the popularity of Lego tournaments, but amazing breakthroughs with practical and critical applications for everyday life.
For example, fire-resistant robots are being developed with lifelike limbs and other body parts to enter burning buildings and perform rescues or douse flames. Unlike the clunky robots of old, these modern counterparts, or humanoids, have flexibility, allowing them to get back up after falling, etc., and are equipped with sensors to guide their way.
And I know it’s only a matter of time before manufacturers tap into an inevitable marketplace niche by using this same technology to create lifelike “perfect” men and women. I would guess that being programmed with traits such as having no desire whatsoever to be a high-maintenance center of the universe who complains all the time, and not leaving the seat up, are good starting points there.
In addition to robot people, you have to consider the rapid advancement of self-driving cars, which I personally fear as a human motorist. That’s because no machine can match the instincts of a person in making the right split-second decisions in dangerous traffic situations.
Then there are those things known as Alexa and Siri, “intelligent” personal-assistant devices that help you get things done such as playing music or triggering other practical functions simply by using your voice.
While these developments can be viewed positively, my memories of sci-fi movies make me wary of a downside to all this.
For one thing, more robots in the workplace means fewer people.
Mark Cuban, a business mogul best known for his ownership of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, famously warned earlier this year that automation will lead to unemployment and the world needs to prepare for that. This came on the heels of other warnings from technology leaders on the impact of robots and artificial intelligence.
It’s that artificial intelligence part that scares me most. It’s one thing to perform useful tasks, but what happens when the machine becomes the master by developing its mental capacity to the point of being able to control man rather than the other way around?
We’ve seen this happen with computers, which yes, are useful devices, but now dominate nearly every aspect of our lives.
I again must hearken back to movies and the groundbreaking late-1960s film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In that flick, a computer named HAL starts off as a useful member of a spaceship crew which performs ship functions and engages in genial conversations with its human members.
But HAL gradually uses his artificial intelligence in a deadly attempt to take over, being thwarted only by the actions of a surviving astronaut who frantically disconnects HAL’s circuits.
So yes, robotics is a good thing — and yes, robot lives matter — but let’s make sure humans are able to pull the plug when needed.
Tom Joyce is a staff writer for The Mount Airy News. He may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.