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June 7th, 2006 Joanna Cantor | Featured Stories
 

Mr. Roboto

Portland transplant Daniel Wilson is making the world safe for robots, one reader at a time.

     
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Robots, breathe easy: Your champion is at hand. While getting a doctorate in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, Daniel H. Wilson was annoyed by what he saw as the mass media's and Hollywood's unjust vilification of robots. So, in 2005, he wrote How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion (Bloomsbury USA, 176 pages, $12.95), a tongue-in-cheek Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook-style manual, complete with such handy hints as "How to Spot a Robot Mimicking a Human" and how to "evade a swarm of marauding robotic flies." Underneath the gimmick, the book is bursting with scientific facts and theories, which Wilson, 28, says will educate readers about what robots are actually capable of these days—and make 'em laugh.

It's probably for the latter reason that Paramount Pictures recently optioned Robot Uprising, casting Mike Myers in the lead role. Wilson, who moved to Portland after grad school to be with his girlfriend, Anna Long, is currently working on his third book, a sequel to Uprising (his second book, Where's My Jetpack?, should hit shelves this fall). WW quizzed the roboticist about the upcoming movie, his Wired Rave Award (featured in the June issue of the magazine) and the radical robotic future.

WW: Why'd you decide to study robotics?

Wilson: Because I think robots are cool. A lot of getting a Ph.D. is self-motivated. You play Xbox for a semester or you work really hard. The secret is to actually do something that you really like.

What was your thesis about?

Smart homes that take care of the elderly. That's my beat. My research has been affected by this book, Sea of Glass, I've been reading since I was a kid. In this book there's this machine that maximizes happiness. And I dig that. I like the idea of a big, benevolent, godlike machine running it all. It's pretty scary to some people. And in the end the machine does kill everybody. What are you going to do, though?

In a sentence, what's a robot?

A mechanical artifact that can sense, think and act in the real world. How about a fire alarm? It senses when there's smoke, it doesn't really think about it too much, but it does have a decision-making process.

How do you think your book will translate to screen?

I wrote [Robot Uprising] specifically to make fun of Hollywood. In an ironic twist, Hollywood is making the book into another robot-uprising movie. But it's the only movie ever made in which people respond intelligently to a robot uprising, mostly. Plus, it's a comedy.

Is the robot uprising at hand?

No. OK, it could happen... But not very likely. Robot malfunction, that's something to worry about, but uprising is different. This is a scenario where the robot decides to do something that a human would do if it were in the same position. It's always a really bad idea to anthropomorphize robots, because robots are not people. They won't do what you would do—they operate on a whole different set of principles.

Do you think robots are going to make certain jobs obsolete?

I saw an article [recently]: No more person behind the counter at the fast-food restaurant. The cash registers are just getting simpler and simpler, right? Hamburger, there's a picture of a hamburger. They finally just turned the fucker around, and now you can just walk up and be like, "Hamburger." Look, I can do it too—no training! There's an example where [the employees] don't want to be there, you don't want them to be there...let's get a robot here, it's going to make life so much better.

But those people have to do something, right?

Sure. It's not a zero-sum game, right? Everything's dynamic. New jobs appear. Old jobs disappear. Robots may cause some jobs to appear directly, but the majority of jobs that appear will be indirect: Now that all the manual labor's taken over, we're all artists. Or whatever. Who the fuck can tell? But robots are going to replace some jobs, and I'm all for it. Of course, I'm in a particularly safe position.

You just received Wired magazine's Rave award for innovation in books...

[Robot Uprising] had quietly made the rounds at [Wired], and the people there loved it. So did their families. [Editor-in-chief] Chris Anderson mailed over a fantastic drawing of the book's cover made by his 5-year-old. It's on my refrigerator. I'm pretty much holding that kid responsible for my winning the award.

So you really don't have a personal robot doomsday scenario?

The development of robotics is iterative, you know?

Um...

There are discrete steps that technology progresses along. It's really hard to make these robots smart. You take one little problem and you work on it and it gets better and better. So people are scared that technology's going to accelerate out of our control, and I'm not too worried about that. But who wants to actually write about something realistic?


For another local take on the future, check out OMSI's new exhibit, "Robots + Us," through Sept. 4. 1945 SE Water Ave., 797-6674. $7-$9.
 
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