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SELF-DESIGNING ROBOTS
by Brick Walters, 9/22/00

Dc: This is DCR, a news program that's reality free! Recently, computer scientists announced that they have created robots that design and build other machines, almost entirely without human help. This startling new development is the latest in what will likely be a series of forward steps that redefine our ideas about what what machines can do and what makes us, as humans, special. Or not. Brick Walters reports.

(sfx: loud assembly line establish and under)

Brick: Doctor Angela Frankenborg took me on a walk along the self designing robot assembly line. The process looked simple, but we soon found the topic itself was very difficult to discuss.

Frankenborg: These robots here are making little roller skate-like machines that they designed themselves. Incredible, huh?

Brick: (int) What do they do?

Frankenborg: They make the machines they designed, like I told you.

Brick: No, not the machines. What do the machines do?

Frankenborg: They ARE the machines.

Brick: But the machines that the machines are making. What do they do?

Frankenborg: Oh! Those! They... don't do anything really. They're just the product.
Here's where the wheels are added. Then comes the logic circuit and then only six welds.

(sfx: welding robot sparking)

Brick: Only six, eh?

Frankenborg: And we're trying to get it down to four. We're always looking for new, more efficient methods. At least two or three times a week we wind up changing the process in a way that conserves energy and materials.

Brick: We?

Frankenborg: Right. I should have said "they." The machines are doing it all themselves. "We"... just watch.

Brick: (vo) The machines in question design and build other machines... a process that is remarkable for the total LACK of human involvement involved. Dr. Frankenborg explained how they do it.

Frankenborg: The robots pay attention to procedure and materials and note any change that means a reduction in time or equipment used or both. So if they miss maybe one in ten thousand welds, rather than shutting down the line they monitor the final product with fewer welds to see if it works properly.

Brick: That's amazing. Considering the product doesn't do anything.

Frankenborg: If it doesn't fall apart, they incorporate the change and then go on looking for new modifications. It's a way to turn production errors into profit centers for the company. If we were making something that actually had value.

(sfx: assembly line down a bit, but still under)

Brick: (vo) The machines that make the machines were designed and programmed by 24-year-old whiz kid Lars Hoogenstien.

Lars: I got the ideas from watching my dad work in the garage. He likes to tinker with things, taking them apart and then piecing them back together, but a lot of times there's a part or two left over. But he tries it anyway to see if that part was really necessary. And you know what? About half the time, it works just fine. I figured we could program our machines to... be like my dad.

(sfx: mechanical ruckus)

Brick: And what's that sound down there? Another new innovation underway?

Lars: Uh, no, that's our product testing device, kicking one of the products that didn't look right. Cussing it up a bit. Just like dad.

Brick: (vo) And this is just the first step towards an assembly line of the future, one where machines will eventually take over all of the standard human functions.

Frankenborg: We've got a new series of assembly robots that will do things so sophisticated, only humans have done them up til now!

Brick: For instance?

Frankenborg: Like dropping a wrench in the gears to shut the line down so they can get the afternoon off.

Brick: But machines don't get tired!

Frankenborg: I know! We had to program them to want a break, and they are finding ways to make it happen. It's very exciting.

Lars: And I'm working on some software to manage the whole thing! It will alternately threaten and reward the assembly machines, searching for some sort of a pattern that will hike productivity.

(sfx: mechanical ruckus increases)

Brick: It sounds like some kind of activity has picked up.

Lars: Labor unrest. It adds creative tension to the whole enterprise.

Frankenborg: I feel like these machines are really coming alive!

Brick: (vo) And so with each trip to the drawing board, modern machines pick up attributes formerly reserved for humans alone. And now, those machines are learning to operate the drawing boards themselves, leaving to humans the tasks formerly reserved for machines. Sitting around, taking up space, and rusting. Out in the field, I'm Brick Walters.

 

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