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Nathan's column: On the road to robot rule

Science fiction is full of terrifying stories about artificial intelligence gone wrong. There are movies about apes that gain intelligence and decide they want more than a fistful of bananas or robots that turn on their creators.

And you just know Rosie was up to something on The Jetsons.

It’s a natural fear, I suppose. As we hand over more and more control to machines, we worry about where it all leads. What happens on the day our automated thermostats decide they’d rather have the temperature at 90 all winter? Just think of the utility bills!

How will we react when Roomba finally, inevitably develops a taste for human flesh?

Those kinds of developments are a long way off, obviously. Most of the robots we’re developing these days are kind of lame, at least compared to the Terminators, Robocops and Johnny 5s of the movies.

Right now we’re building robots that play miniature games of soccer, that jump rope, that dance when we clap for them. I’m not sure that last one is even necessary. We’ve already got Lady Gaga.

A team of German engineers recently developed the world’s first robot kangaroo, which seems like a totally necessary thing. What’s that going to do? Put us all in its little pocket.

On the other hand, it does open the door to a whole world of robot marsupials. I’m pretty sure a robot koala would be terrifying.

We’re on the robot road, though. You don’t have to look any farther for evidence than the cars we drive.

My new car is pretty basic as these things go. It’s got dusk-sensing headlights, which I guess are pretty nice. I don’t have to remember to turn the lights on, and they flip themselves off while the sun is out. That’s about it as far as advanced automation goes in this particular vehicle, though.

But all you have to do is scan down the options list and it becomes clear just how much control we’re handing over to our automobiles. Cars can park themselves. They can adjust their driving speed to avoid hitting the cars in front of them and yank us back into line if we start to drift.

If I’d wanted to spend the money, I could have gotten a car with rain-sensing windshield wipers. Honestly, though, if you can’t sense a little rain on your own you probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel.

Ultimately, the goal is self-driving cars. Having once seen a man drive down Cedar Avenue while playing the trumpet, that might actually be a good idea.

Until we’re ready to hand over complete control to KITT, though, I’m not sure these incremental automations are in everyone’s best interest. The less people feel like they have to pay attention on the road, the more likely they are to decide the morning commute is a good time to catch up on their texting. Or rock out with a solo to Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.

If that happens, we won’t need to wait for the automated uprising to wipe us all out. We’ll take care of it ourselves.

Just like the Roomba wants us to.

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

(651) 460-6606