Live from ETech: iRobot…

02/10/2004

For the most part the ETCon keynotes are pretty much high-concept fluff. They’re fundamentally high-profile, high-glamour bits of hardcore tech that (often) are completely outside the practical experience of the so-called Alpha geeks that attend these events. But they have their value – they’re designed, I imagine, to be more brain-openers than brain-developers, they’re there to extent the aspirations, intentions and creativity of the people who attend the event rather than to be of direct use to them. Nonetheless if you’re not blown away by the technology or awed by the future tech on display, they can seem like more of a waste of time. Bring on the stuff I can actually use…

Last year the troubling session of this kind was from K. Eric Drexler on Nanotechnology, which most people had already read about in great length but there wasn’t a lot of apparent movement upon. The geeks in the room were interested in the theory but wanted results or something they could participate in. Intrigue fought with frustration and in the end – I think – frustration won. This year that balance was never more in evidence in the second keynote of the morning: Robots: Saving Time, Money and Lives.

Helen Greiner from iRobot Corporation came on stage and seemed surprisingly nervous. She started talking about the Roomba automatic robotic hoover and did so at considerable length. The immediate interest (“I want one”) faded quite rapidly as people gradually tired of the technological challenges of sensing walls, picking up dust and getting in close to the walls. Watching something of technological interest but distinct from the activities of most of the people in the room just seemed to gradually cease being that fascinating. But all that changed when she moved onto the military applications and particularly the Packbot [See the brochure].

The first reaction to the Packbots is fascination and a certain amount of awe. Comments like “I’ve seen this movie!” and “I want one” mix with awed responses to the robustness of the devices concerned. A video is shown where a Packbot is thrown through a window, lands with a thump, bounces a bit, rights itself, looks around and wanders off. One zooms up a staircase. One falls from a second story window and survives intact. Murmurs of delight from the audience at the new toy on offer reverberate through the room.

But gradually the mood changes and anxieties start to appear. Questions about the applicability and potential uses of the technology start to collide with the natural utopianism of the geek audience. What will these robots be used for? Who will control them? Where are the controls? It’s not immediately clear exactly where the anxiety is coming from – we all appreciate that weapons have to be built, that there is a need for the armed forces. But there seems to be something different about using robotics. Thinking about it I come to the conclusion that maybe it’s about a sense of automated killing – an absence of human presence that makes the whole thing resonate with the increasingly mechanised processes of death that echoed through the last century. Is keeping people further out of the equation actually a good idea? Does it discourage or encourage conflict if your side can eradicate another country without suffering any losses at all? Those human horrors of shell-shock and war-weariness – the insanity caused by human-upon-human violence suddenly seem to me almost preferable options – deterrents to conflict designed to stop us arbitrarily exterminating people and going to war.

I’m not going to judge the people involved – I don’t have that right. We all know that warfare and the technologies of warfare must evolve and adapt. The arms race still exists, and will continue to do so as long as state feels under threat from other states or from terror-attacks. It’s just that I didn’t expect such an early brain-opening session to ring such alarm bells or to give me such concern for the future… On occasion, this country I’m visiting feels like it believes itself to be under seige – like some kind of gated-community surrounded by paramilitary, robotic guards…