Robots in our midst

From intelligent car brakes, MIDI keyboards to wireless prosthetics, we interact with more computers than many people suspect.

By HAREL FELDMAN
July 12, 2012 16:11
4 minute read.
Electronic monopoly

Electronic monopoly. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Science fiction writers predicted that the 21st century would be full of sentient computers, robots who serve us, flying cars and silvery jumpsuits. We might not have made good on the flying cars yet, and I wouldn’t be caught dead in a jumpsuit, but you might be surprised at how many robots serve you on a daily basis, and what that actually means when it comes to understanding the things with which you interact.

Did you know your car has anywhere between 30 and 100-plus computers inside? Each one of the computers has an important role in making cars as comfortable as they are. Most cars have intelligent brakes (ABS), which use a computer to help prevent skidding when you brake on a slippery road. Another on-board computer controls how much fuel reaches the engine to optimize fuel consumption, and yet another opens the doors when you press the “unlock” button on your remote control.

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These may not be what you picture when you hear the words “robot” or “computer,” but just because they don’t look like your desktop or a giant mechanical man, it doesn’t mean they should be underestimated. The on-board computers in cars have significantly increased the safety of both drivers and pedestrians by beeping when the driver reverses too close to people, by controlling the airbags and by activating the “seatbelt not buckled” reminder (which, while loud and irritating, has saved lives). Computers make driving more comfortable as well, providing a radio that can read USB and connect to your cellphone, running the thermostat on your car’s AC and enabling cruise control.

Cars aren’t the only things you encounter with built-in computers.

Another unexpected place to find computers today is in musical instruments. Much of the music we listen to is either processed though a computer or completely generated by it. Most computer-generated music begins its life with an actual instrument, which saves the keys pressed or strings strummed as computer data (MIDI). Once this data is on the computer, it can be converted into any type of instrument, or even into tones no instrument could ever produce. A skillful musician working on a MIDI keyboard can play the roles of an entire symphony once the data is ported over to the computer and the instruments altered and combined.

YOU MIGHT think that the respectable board game would have resisted this trend, but Hasbro has released Monopoly Electronic Banking Edition, which replaces the banker with a small computer in the center of the board. The players all have credit cards, and the computer keeps track of the in-game currency. This completely eliminates cheating (as well as many inhouse rules), but that’s the price you pay for getting rid of paper money and replacing it with cool, unforgiving plastic.

Even the more advanced calculators have gone to the digital side. They contain small programmable computer chips that can do far more than just calculate or plot graphs: You can download games onto the device (including almost any Game Boy game) and play using the number keys while your math teacher thinks you’re just trying to solve her equation.

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Then there are the chips in the remote controls you use for TVs and computers.

The more advanced chips let the remote “learn” how to control new devices, as well as respond to touch or movement.

Some have even been upgraded to have a touchscreen that displays relevant information.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Okay, I understand that most devices I use today have a computer of some sort.

You can’t surprise me anymore.” But there’s one last place you might not expect computers to be: Inside people.

Although the term “cyborg” – a person with computer or robotic parts – has fallen out of fashion, people are more and more integrated with computers as technology develops. Most prosthetics and implants today run entirely on internal computers that regulate their behavior and allow reprogramming by the doctor. For example, a pacemaker made in recent years can wirelessly tell a doctor what issues you have had since the last checkup, perform self-diagnosis and allow its settings to be changed, all via a computer in the office.

Prosthetic limbs are computer-controlled to read tiny muscle cues from the surrounding tissue, or can be controlled by a keyboard or joystick.

COMPUTERS HAVE found their way into many other things, such as air conditioners, TVs and cameras, and the fact that most of the things we use today have internal computer chips has changed the way we view technology. Our consumer goods quickly become obsolete as technology progresses, and thus have a relatively low repair value. For example, a new desktop computer costs around NIS 900 from most suppliers, while the price of repairing your old, outdated one can easily pass NIS 500, depending on the problem. People no longer spend time learning how their devices work inside and out, because the effort and cost of repairs aren’t worth it compared to the affordability and enjoyment of owning a new device. Would you fix a broken remote control, or buy a new, universal remote and throw away all the old ones you have scattered around the house? Would you get your digital camera fixed, or pick up a new discount camera for the same price with significantly more features and better resolution?

Personally I love learning how to fix the gadgets I have around the house. I have learned most of what I know about technology from my hands-on experience. But while it is fun and educational, do-it-yourself repair is frequently becoming the minority choice for consumers who would rather have the latest and greatest technology at their fingertips.

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