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From Masters to Minions?

Virtual Reality and Robotics Make Sci-Fi less Fictional

By Scorpinosis Nightfire

In the 2009 Sci-fi thriller “Surrogates,” Bruce Willis is a detective in a near future where people use android avatars (much more attractive than the actual users) to do all their real world tasks outside the home. Even dating and sex are done via the safety of the Surrogates while the users stay home safe from any potential, hurt, harm, or even unpleasant weather

As in other films, like 2009’s “Gamer” starring Gerard Butler, we see a future where our current interactive environments can be a slippery slope that gateway us into a greater dependence on virtual reality made in our own image in order to escape an unhappy life. Yet our growing desire for a virtual matrix of our own making could be the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to moving us closer to bridging the gap between fantasy and reality.

Films are often prophetic when it comes to taking our pop-culture trends to their potential conclusions, for both good and bad.  The Surrogates premise may seem like a future version of something with which we avatar users are very familiar – today, for example, we find the world of the avatar and our physical lives merging and heading into similar scenarios as presented in the movie, Surrogate.

It is likely not surprising that our first large leaps into the concept of merging the virtual with reality has to do with sex.  Recently a virtual sex simulator called the “VR Tenga,” was unveiled in Japan. The VRT is the product of a joint effort between adult toy company Tenga and virtual reality pioneer Oculus VR, the company behind the immersive virtual reality headset called the Oculus Rift.  Unveiled at an Oculus Rift game jam in Tokyo, according to one report, the device attaches a Novint Falcon—a grip-based, haptic controller—to the Japanese industrial masturbator known as a “Tenga.” Used as intended, the user would insert himself into the Tenga, which is then manipulated by the Falcon; all the while the user views some sort of visual stimulation synced to the movement of the hybrid Falcon/Tenga, on his Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Headset.  Hold on to your hats my friends; Linden Labs has also confirmed that they are integrating the Oculus Rift into our Second Life experiences in 2014.

Not only is virtual reality becoming more mainstream, but it seems that robotics is going through accelerated advancements designed to give machines many more responsibilities currently performed by humans.   With that in mind, there is a very short mental leap from the new VR Tenga to the concept of sex robots.  A survey conducted in April of this year, showed that 18 percent of respondents believe that sex robots will be available by 2030, while only nine percent way they would have sex with a robot if given the opportunity.

Robots are already used in military and law enforcement, yet the version of which we speak here more closely resembles humans and animals than funny looking little pancake style robots on tracks.  Take, for example, the animal-like machines already in existence that can carry heavy packs, climb mountains and even run at great speed. The Boston Dynamics’ Wildcat robot, for example, can gallop at a leisurely pace of 16-miles-per-hour and exceed speeds of 25-miles-per-hour at full speed.  There are great uses for a robot of this nature for military and even reconnaissance purposes.

This could be why information and tech giant Google has been buying up robotics companies left and right. Yet, according to one expert there is another, potentially more concerning reason that Google has gone into the robotics business; while Google’s previous acquisitions were companies that made bits and parts of robots, the recent Boston Dynamics deal makes it clear that Google’s true ambition is human-like robots interacting with ordinary people.

“The only reason to buy this company is to make complete androids, systems that can walk around on our sidewalks and right up to our homes,” says Illah Nourbakhsh, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and author of the book Robot Futures. Such bots could be incredibly helpful, but also incredibly invasive as they have the ability to send data and pictures back to Google.

Google has acquired eight companies in six months but what makes the purchase of Boston Dynamics significant is that they are making incredibly mobile full scale robots with functions that make them highly interactive with humans.  Can anybody say “iRobot?”

“With constant connections to computer servers over the Internet, the robots will be able to act as two-way connections between the digital and physical worlds. Such robots will get cues on how to behave with knowledge of a person’s preferences as collected by Google and, at the same time, send data back to Google of observations in the real world,” reported Aaron Pressman from Yahoo Finance.

Reams of data are also the key to Google’s self-driving cars. Building robotic cars that navigate only by analyzing their surroundings in real time would be extremely difficult. But giving the robotic car detailed maps and annotated pictures simplifies the task immensely, as Google’s head of research Peter Norvig explained in the New York Times Magazine on December 15.  “The flip side of data-driven robots is data-collecting robots, and that has some privacy advocates worried about Google’s activities. A robot in the home could have unprecedented access to a family’s activities and preferences,” Pressman goes on to point out.

It doesn’t take a robotics scientist to see how closely our current activities with virtual avatars and robotics, increasingly mirrors the plot lines of Sci-Fi movies. One does not have to stretch their imagination too far to imagine how effective these robot animals would be at running down enemies of the state as Hunter Killers did for Skynet in the Terminator movie series or as the Agents did in the Matrix.

What all these movie plots have in common is that progress for the sake of greed or at the expense of our civil liberties (even when the intentions are good) is a Pandora’s box of our making that ends with machine masters and human minions.

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