Not All Robots Are Killers: Some Save Energy!

Peter Judge

The UN could ban killer robots. And Peter Judge doesn’t want any entered in our office gadget competition.

Last week, the United Nations was asked to ban killer robots, according to reports from places including the BBC. Meanwhile, more benign robots are getting on with placating data centres’ demands for energy: IBM has a bunch of them plotting thermal maps to help improve efficiency

Killer robots are a real concern. The success of drones in combat and surveillance is leading to a next stage, where autonomous devices act according to programs, instead of under the control of a remote operator.


Robot killers

Proponents say that “lethal autonomous robots” would save lives – by populating battlefields with artificial creatures. Opponents point out that they could easily kill civilians and carry out atrocities – for which a war crime prosecution might be impossible.

In fact, the field of roboethics has been developing quietly since Isaac Asimov proposed his Three Laws of Robotics in science fiction stories from the 1940s. Actions of autonomous robots will have to be handled in law at some point.

I’d like to see Asimov’s rules imposed – but in the meantime, the UN Human Rights Council has received a report calling for a moratorium on the use of killer robots.

Meanwhile, IBM researchers have a much more pleasant robot: it makes heat maps of data centers.

The robot is based on an iRobot Create – basically a Roomba without the vacuum cleaning payload. It’s got a netbook, with a webcam and sensors mounted on a metal pole. It drives autonomously round the data center to produce an accurate map of temperatures throughout the space.

Friendly robot toys © charles taylorShutterstock

Temperature maps are important, because they can identify waste or danger: areas where cooled air is wasted, or hot spots are building up.

The robot takes the place of a tedious manual process, which had previously been done by people using stationary sensors, or pushing tall carts around the data center. IBM has described it in a couple of papers (here and here) dating back to 2011, when it was presented at the ICAC conference in Karlsruhe, Germany.

The IBM guy behind it is Master Inventor Jonathan Lenchner – also one of the brains behind the Watson machine which appeared on the Jeopardy TV show.

The robot hits one of the fundamental issues of using technology to make things more efficient. Data work can improve a process – but all too often, it simply takes too much time and effort to gather the necessary data. Smart grids are another example of this issue.

This robot smartly gets around the problem of finding out the data. Automatic maps will be more accurate and can be produced more often, so people working in a data centre can see the effect of successive changes to the air flow in the space, and get to a better solution. .

Want to build a robot?

TechWeek Office Gadget CompetitionIt’s also a good example of a “grass-roots” type of project, put together with good old-fashioned hacking skills. Just the kind of project we like to see. We aren’t expecting anything quite as elaborate in our Office Gadget competition, but we are looking for ideas on DIY technology which can solve problems in a business setting. And we’re offering free hardware to help build the best candidate!

Our competition doesn’t have to include a robot. But if it does, we will certainly follow the advice that was given to the UN Human Rights Council. If your ideal office robot is an autonomous killing machine, it won’t be winning our prize.

This story is based on a piece which appeared on Green Data Center News

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IBM Roomba Data Centre Robot

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Thermal maps from the EMC Roomba robot


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