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Why robots are stupid and other questions about technology

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Why are robots stupid? is a wonderful journey into our everyday life, written by Federico Taddia and Barbara Mazzolai, researcher of excellence who directs the bioinspired robotics laboratory of the Italian Institute of Technology. The illustrations are by AntonGionata Ferrari.

The book explains in simple but precise language topics such as artificial intelligence, algorithms, robotics and the relationship between nature and new technologies. Why robots are stupid you will find out by reading the book (Science Editorial, 2021, pages 96 € 12.50), here we asked an artificial intelligence (Siri’s character reading and recognition system) to transcribe some pages for us where the authors explain what is easier and what is more difficult for an automaton to do.

What are the hardest things for a robot?
This is a difficult question, because for a robot, things that may seem very easy to him are very complex.

You mean I’m better, but sooo better, than a robot?
I really think so. There are actions that are almost trivial for us but can be extremely complicated for a robot. For humanoids, for example, walking with a bipedal posture, that is, on two legs, over the sand or on steep ground without falling is a real challenge. But recognizing objects or a voice, or opening a door and using a tool, are also very problematic activities for a robot.

And is it so essential that he knows how to do them?
I would say yes. All the activities that I have just listed are essential for those machines that will have the purpose of assisting us in the house or bringing us help.

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But if they can’t do anything why do we build them?
But no, we must not forget that robots can do a lot of difficult things, sometimes almost impossible for us. Many robots are explorers who move and perform actions in remote and inaccessible places. One example is Curiosity, the NASA robot that was designed to explore the hostile lands of Mars, the red planet, in search of past and present life forms. This robot is 3 meters long, weighs 900 kilos and is active day and night. In total solitude and in complete autonomy, since 2012 he has been sending us splendid images of Mars, fueling our curiosity about the origin and history of this fascinating planet. Not to mention the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity drone that are currently on the ground, and also in the sky, Martian.

So can robots explore the universe for us?
Not just space, even the Earth. There are autonomous or remotely controlled submarine robots that are able to dive into lakes, rivers and seas, in search of archaeological finds, or to monitor water quality. In fact, robots can even reach very deep waters where the pressures are very high and the temperatures very low, for example to discover new species of animals with funny shapes. Here, for the human being it would be very complicated, if not impossible, to reach those depths

Not easy to be a robot huh?
There are many other difficult things that robots are learning to do for us: for example, moving through the rubble after a disaster, to help and save people and animals, climb hills, operate switches or activate valves.

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That of robots seems like a fundamental help …
And that’s not all: some robots are designed to help humans from very, very close … even, from within our bodies. I’m talking about surgical robots. They are very small and are even inspired by bacteria. They will be used to study our organs from the inside and perhaps release drugs in specific areas.

Will they also do the surgeries?
It already happens! The robot da Vinci, for example, it is able to replace the heart valve, a very difficult operation. It has four robotic arms: three hold objects such as scalpels, scissors, healing tools, and more, while the fourth holds a camera that allows the surgeon to see inside the body and guide the movements of the arms through a console, somewhat as if it was a video game!

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