.Facts in the Fiction

The second edition of Luck and Death at the Edge of the World has a new section that appears after the novel itself, called Facts in the Fiction. It gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at some of the factual background to the fictional story.

Facts in the Fiction includes text and images, as well as links to online material such as  web pages, PDF documents, and videos. I tested this format with my novel The Virgin Birth of Sharks and got a good response, so when the second edition of Luck and Death came around it seemed natural to give it its own version.

Below is a sample from Facts in the Fiction. In total FITF includes six sections, of which this is one.

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Two: The Robots Go to the Dogs

One of the mysteries about the attempt on Max Prince’s life is how the would-be assassin got past the Dogware.

Like many things in science fiction, Dogware is an extrapolation of current technologies. It incorporates several threads into one fictional system:

  • nanorobotics,
  • robot swarms, and
  • military robotics.

Nanorobotics

Nanorobotics is a branch of nanotechnology, which deals with creating materials and devices on molecular scales. Manipulating matter at the level of the molecule allows you to create materials with specific properties and to build microscopic devices that can be deployed for very fine work, sometimes inside our bodies.

In nanorobotics, we use the techniques of nanotechnology to create robots that are microscopically small.  At the moment nanobots are in the research and development phase, but rudimentary nanobots have been tested, like the nanocar developed at Rice University.

Nanogears made of Fullerene molecules.
Nanogears made of Fullerene molecules.

Robot Swarms

The robot swarm is a technology that’s distinct from nanotechnology, but that overlaps with it. A swarm may consist of robots of any size – you can have a swarm of nanobots or of robots on a human scale. The idea behind the swarm has less to do with the size of the robots than with how they function.

In the animal world, creatures that individually have relatively little intelligence — like ants, for instance — sometimes act together, according to simple rules of interaction, and by doing so perform tasks of remarkable sophistication.

One of the key ideas behind swarm robotics is to adapt this technique so that a group of simple robots can jointly carry out a task with little or no oversight by operating together and obeying a set of simple rules.

In some swarms the robots physically assemble into a larger unit, as with the Dogs, while in others they remain separate but work as a group.

You can find examples of research papers on the effort to import this naturally occurring approach into robotic systems here and here.

Robot swarms might sound like something on the fringe of scientific legitimacy, but this is a very area of active research. To cite just a couple of examples:

  • Engineering professor James McLurkin, of the Multi-Robot Systems Lab at Rice University, is a leader in the field of swarm robotics. You can watch him give a talk called The Future of Robotics is Swarms (with a demo) here.
  • The European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies Program recently completed the Swarm-Bot project and has now undertaken the Swarmanoid project.  You can find details on their sites and there’s a nice video created as part of Swarmanoid here.
  • Swarm principles are now being applied to airborne robotic systems as well. You can see a great short video here. Note that the title of the video refers to the flying robots as nano quadrators even though they’re clearly not nanoscale at all — people sometimes use “nano” loosely to simply mean small.

Military Robots

Recent wars have seen the increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, that can take the place of manned aircraft in battle. Drones aren’t quite comparable to the dogs since they don’t operate autonomously, but crude autonomous weapons have been used since World War II (like the Goliath Tracked Mine) and more sophisticated ones are sure to be on the way.

The U.S. Navy recently funded a major research project into the ethics of using autonomous robots in war. You can read the 2008 report in PDF format here.

When I first conceived of Dogware, military robot dogs were all in my head. By the time Luck and Death was published, though, the real world had caught up a little with my fictional robotic security system.

In 2005 Boston Dynamics and Foster-Miller created the first generation BigDog – a sophisticated four-legged military robot – with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). You can read a paper on BigDog’s development in PDF format here.

With a curious resemblance to a Star Wars AT-AT, a BigDog stands about 3 feet (one metre) high, exactly the same size as the dogs. So if you want to know what the dogs would look like, watch this video and, as BigDog lumbers along beside its human companion, imagine the same beast but much more agile and with immense, razor-sharp teeth. Then imagine hundreds of them.

BigDog military robots.
BigDog military robots.
BigDog also has a little brother, LittleDog, which researchers use to learn more about legged locomotion. You can see him in action in this video.

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Image Links and Credits:

Fullerene nanogears, image by NASA.

BigDog military robots, photo by United States Marine Corps.

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