Friday, March 28, 2008

From HAL to Dextre, fiction becomes reality

Robots have always played a key role in science fiction, from R2D2 and C3PO to Robby the Robot. Some are portrayed as friendly while others are represented as evil creatures. Science fiction has often been an accurate predictor of things to come and robots are no exception.

Who can forget the menacing and evil HAL from the classic “2001: A Space Odyssey”? Unlike the scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz,” HAL did indeed have a brain and an attitude.

I was reminded of all this while watching the just-completed shuttle mission to the International Space Station where astronauts installed a Canadian-built robot named Dextre. The robot will conduct a great deal of work that would have previously been done by astronauts during dangerous spacewalks. Crew members are already referring to him in the first person.

Here on earth, robots and robotic devices are playing an increasingly important role in our lives. Robots have improved how we build things and even how we conduct commerce. You can already buy robotic lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners. The car that you drive was most likely assembled in part by robotic machines. There’s a very good reason for all this. Computer controlled robots never call in sick. They don’t take vacations or coffee breaks and once you buy them, they work for free.

Notice I’m mentioning computers in the same sentence as robots? That’s why all of this is so interesting to me.

If you watch local or national news on television you’re actually seeing robots in action. No, not the anchors, but the cameras pointed at them. They are robotic, and several of them are operated by just one technician. Often the cameras are pre-programmed by computers to move around the studio. Every time I’m interviewed on a news show, I get a kick out of watching the cameras zooming around the studio, automatically setting up for different shots.

Perhaps the most human-looking robot is one designed by Honda. Its name is ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility). It’s about the size of a 10-year-old child. It can walk and run and is designed to be an assistant. This robot is a drone, meaning it doesn’t think for itself. Think of it as C3PO Version 1.0. ASIMO is expensive, about the cost of a car and not nearly as useful. However, it is a good experiment in technology.

Where is all this headed? Perhaps you saw the Steven Spielberg film “A.I.” (Artificial Intelligence) starring Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law. The film presents a rather apocalyptic view of humanoid robots. It doesn’t have a happy ending, like I said in the beginning; science fiction has a way of becoming real.

The difference between science fiction and reality is whether we will choose to program these machines or if we decide to make them so they can think for themselves. Personally, I feel safer with the former.

With that said, the way technology is progressing, especially for various robotic devices in the home, don’t be surprised if you see a Video Professor lesson title like “Learn How to Program Your Robots,” sooner rather than later.

A quick note on another subject, I had the opportunity to appear on both “FOX Business News” and “FOX & Friends” in New York City this week. It’s always a treat to visit the set of “FOX & Friends.” They’re a terrific crew and it is fun to work with them. I’ll tell you all about it in next week’s blog.


(John W. Scherer, CEO & founder of Video Professor, Inc.)

You can reach me at