Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


16.4.2 Robots and Robotics

Robots are now on the human scene in all but their most advanced forms. One writer has observed that "robots are at about the same stage as electronic calculators about a decade ago.... Specialists in the field suggest that ten years from now robots will be as common as calculators are today."2681 The word "robot" itself comes from a 1920 play written by the late Czech author Karel Capek entitled Rossum’s Universal Robots. In this early science fiction tale of the future, sentient robots revolt against human-enforced slavery and conquer the world themselves.

One of the first writers with the courage to portray intelligent mechanical beings as benign, or at least indifferent, was Dr. Isaac Asimov. His well-known Three Laws of Robotics -- intended to be incorporated into the basic psychology of every sentient machine -- were designed to prevent a revolt against biological creators such as was envisioned by Capek:

First Law -- A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law -- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law -- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.2682

While these rules may guide human planners, there is no guarantee that extraterrestrial robots will obey the Three Laws or any similar failsafe system. ETs may choose to give their automatons considerably greater freedom of action, especially if they are the products of "total prosthesis" (biological consciousness transferral). Mechanicals from other worlds designed to perform military, emergency rescue, or political functions may require considerably more autonomy than Asimov’s Laws would permit.

Terrestrial robotics technology is actually fairly advanced in the area of physical locomotion (Figure 16.4). Human roboticists at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) have constructed an computer-directed automaton with wheels, two retractible arms, and a television camera mounted in its "head." The device, nicknamed "Shakey," is free to roam about a room strewn with objects of various shapes and sizes. The SRI robot can be programmed to perform specific lifting, moving and stacking operations. (E.g., "Pick up the smallest cube and take it to the doorway."1779)


Figure 16.4 Humanoid Robot-Building Technology: Terrestrial State-of-the-Art
Century I

Century I is a 2-meter, 300-kilogram (7-foot, 650-pound) bullet-proof automated security guard. The $75,000 robot was unveiled at the 1977 annual seminar of the American Society for Industrial Security.

The humanoid’s sensors detect movement, body heat, or noise and lock onto the source. At speeds up to 30 kph (20 mph), Century I closes on its quarry. When it gets within about 3 meters, it orally instructs the intruder to halt with an imperious voice.

If disobeyed, the robot gets tough. Standard equipment includes an ultrasonic sound transmitter that causes extreme pain in the inner ear. A blinding strobe light, an electronic pistol that shoots powerful shocks, and a spray gun filled with laughing gas are also available. While admitting that Century I could be programmed to kill, Anthony J. Reichelt of Quasar Industries Inc. (Rutherford, N.J.) added that his firm plans to use only "nonlethal restraint" in its machines.

Quasar is also developing a $125,000 Century II robot for the U.S. Army. "Once he’s put on program," explained inventor Reichelt in regard to the improved model, "nobody can stop him."2702


Another product of Quasar Industries, Klatu is seen as a possible prototype for the first "domestic android." At 1 meters tall and 80 kilograms (5 feet, 180 pounds), the robot reputedly may be programmed to accept a wide variety of household chores.

According to Reichelt, president of Quasar, Klatu can: Vacuum floors, greet guests and take their coats, serve drinks and dinner, guard the house, walk the dog, clear dishes from the table, wash windows, speak "intelligently" with a 250-word vocabulary, and play nursemaid to the children and the bedridden. Robotologists and other experts in the scientific community are skeptical.

The price -- a cool $4000.2703


Grade school students at Public School 106 in the Bronx receive instruction from a robot substitute teacher. The picturesque 1-meter, 90-kilogram (5'5", 200-pound) automaton with black plastic arms and legs was created by Dr. Michael Freeman for only $1000. (The legs are motorized, but the robot is chained to a table for security.)

The humanoid’s brain is a computer, made partly from components cannibalized from an RCA Spectra 70. Leachim has memorized parts of Compton’s Encyclopaedia, Webster’s New World Dictionary, a Ginn science book, a thesaurus and a Macmillan reading series, as well as the national anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, Aesop’s fables, a round of jokes, a few words in Spanish, and detailed biographical and educational information for each student.2693


The Russian automated lunar rover Lunakhod is a mobile eight-wheeled robot with TV camera eyes, able to navigate the surface of the Moon. Soviet scientists also are developing a spider-like surface exploratory vehicle that will be able to cross obstacles impassable by wheeled or caterpillar-tracked machines. This device, now under development at the Leningrad Institute of Aviation Instrument Makers, has six legs, a computer "brain," and a laser eye that scans ahead for trouble.1138 It reportedly can negotiate steep slopes, stairs, narrow corridors with sharp turns, and landscapes littered with stones or fallen trees.2694

Mechanical "feeding" has also been accomplished. Robots have been designed that are capable of searching for "food" and thus of maintaining their own active existence. Dr. W. Grey Walter designed a small electronic turtle in his laboratory in Bristol, England, decades ago. Dubbed Machina speculatrix by its creator, Walter’s "machine lifeforms" each consisted of two tiny radio tubes, a photoelectric cell and a touch sensor, motors for crawling and steering, and a light bulb for "speaking," all hooked up to a miniature 6-volt storage battery.1783

Each robot exhibited various interesting behaviors. When the battery ran low, the turtle was programmed to hunt for its "hutch" where it could plug in and recharge.* When placed in front of a mirror, the device displays a primitive form of self-recognition. An encounter between two mechanical creatures is described by Walter thus: "Each, attracted by the light the other carries, extinguishes its own source of attraction, so the two systems become involved in a mutual oscillation, leading finally to a stately retreat."2106 Later models were equipped with microphones so they could respond to whistles. More complicated circuitry allowed more variable behavior as well as the ability to "learn."60 With a behavior repertoire attributable to no more than 1000 bits, the intelligence of Machina speculatrix probably rivals that of the rotifer.

The purpose behind Walter’s work was to demonstrate that quite simple machines could fairly well mimic the goal-seeking ability of animals. All the major attributes of life on Earth -- feeding, metabolizing, mobility, response to stimuli and so forth -- can and have been designed into various machines built by humans.1782 We’ve seen that emotions and intellect can be impressed upon artificial structures. There appear to be no real limits to the complexity of organization and behavior that might be displayed by alien robots. Indeed, extraterrestrial automata may even have the ability to reproduce.85,956

Von Neumann demonstrated during the 1940’s that self-reproducing machines are quite possible in principle.1726 Basically, the problem is to find the proper parts and to know how to put them together. Von Neumann envisioned a machine that could move around in a special stockroom, selecting the pieces required to build another machine exactly like itself -- and then doing so. Such a device necessarily consists of two parts: One part to build a duplicate copy, and another part able to program the duplicate so it can make more copies too. (This is analogous to the distinction between phenotype and genotype in biology.2364) According to one computer scientist, such a reproducing system could be as small as 150,000 bits of information.1737 <Note added: A general review of kinematic self-replicating machines was published by the author in 2004 and is available online at http://www.MolecularAssembler.com/KSRM.htm.>

A large population of such organisms would constitute an ecology. They will evolve. Wrote von Neumann:

If there is a change in the description. . . the system will produce, not itself, but a modification of itself. Whether the next generation can produce anything or not depends on where the change is. So, while this system is exceedingly primitive, it has the trait of an inheritable mutation, even to the point that a mutation made at random is most probably lethal, but may be nonlethal and inheritable.1726

Sentient alien automata thus may be "alive" both in the popular as well as the technical sense.


* Anyone interested in building such a device should consult Huber’s article "Free Roving Machine," which contains specifications and circuit diagrams for a similar system.1784 A more ambitious design for a "mechanical pet" may be found in Heiserman’s Build Your Own Working Robot.2683


Last updated on 6 December 2008