On August 29, 2013, Marvel announced that its supervillain for Avengers 2, Ultron, would be played by former brat-pack member James Spader. The actor has played some parts that require a sinister bent, so while some fans were surprised by the casting – and began speculating about what it implied for how the robotic artificial intelligence would look on the big screen – others were excited by the decision. Viewers only introduced to Marvel’s Avengers by Joss Whedon’s blockbusting The Avengers may not know Ultron’s prior history. And while murderous robots may be a staple of Hollywood, real world artificial intelligence is pushing new limits – including outer space, as Japan’s humanoid robot Kirobo makes his way to the International Space Station.
Who is Ultron?
“Ultron is a legacy supervillain: He’s been wreaking havoc in the Marvel Universe since the late sixties, accumulating the kind of retroactive continuity and time-travel laced rap sheet that gives migraines to Marvel Comics readers,” Rachel Edidin explained in her August 30, 2013, Wired article, “Ultron 101: Meet the killer robot of Avengers: Age of Ultron.” The Ultron character has gone through a number of different chassis, and a number of plot arcs, all of them with the villain going after the heroic Avengers. Edidin offered a few tidbits about Ultron’s history and future:
- The original Ultron was created by Avenger Hank Pym, aka Ant-Man, using his own brain patterns while he was experimenting with AI technology.
- Unsurprisingly, Ultron decided not to be a patsy for the Avengers, rebelling, rejecting his human roots and ultimately declaring the Avengers his enemies.
- When revenge stopped being enough, he decided on a goal of world domination.
- Since Hank Pym will not appear in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, moviegoers can expect a different backstory for the marauding robot.
Artificial intelligence beyond the screen
The threat of evil robots has long been a staple of Hollywood, with such classic villains as HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Skynet and the Terminators from James Cameron’s “Terminator” franchise. But real-world artificial intelligence research is steering clear of creating megalomaniacal robots with a drive for power. Instead, they’re reaching for the stars – quite literally.
Meet Kirobo. He’s 13 inches tall and weighs in at 2.2 pounds. And he’s on his way to the International Space Station to help keep the astronauts sane. According to the Kibo Robot Project’s home page, their mission is to use robot companions to help people in isolation continue to feel like they are part of a social environment. Kibo is the Japanese word for hope.
“I want to help create a word where humans and robots can live together,” Kirobo said just before he was launched into space on August 3, Gavin Blair of Christian Science Monitor reported in his August 5, 2013, article “Japan’s one small step for robots, one giant leap for robot-kind.”
Kirobo has been programmed to converse with astronaut Koichi Wakata in Japanese, relaying conversations to another robot on Earth, so that researchers can study how artificial intelligence provides emotional stimulation for people denied human contact. “Russia was the first to go to outer space, the U. S. was the first to go to the moon, we want Japan to be the first to send a robot-astronaut to space that can communicate with humans,” Yorichika Nishijima, project manager for the Kibo Robot Project, was quoted as saying in Miriam Kramer’s June 27, 2013, Space.com article “Japan to launch talking robot into space.”
Other AI advances
Kirobo may be the face of artificial intelligence research, but there are other, less adorable, advances being made.
- In an August 30, 2013, NPR article, “Don’t call it a mind-meld: Human brains connect via the Internet,” Bill Chappell reported on how two testers collaborated on a video game together from two different rooms. One tester could see the screen, while the other tester held the controller. The tester viewing the screen used a mind-to-mind Internet connection to make the other tester’s fingers twitch on the controller.
- IBM’s Watson, who previously won on Jeopardy, is becoming an advisor for research industries, such as pharmaceuticals, and the blueprint for application building information ecosystems. Watson is branching out from video games because it is learning how to learn, blogger Deborah Gage explained in a May 15, 2013, Wall Street Journal blog entry, “IBM CEO touts Watson, new ‘golden era of technology.’”
- Even better, Watson’s getting faster. The new IBM Power8 chip is between two and three times faster than Watson’s Power7 chip, making it the fastest processor yet.
Are you worried about the singularity – the moment when artificial intelligence becomes self aware? Or do you welcome our new robot overlords?
You can learn more about artificial intelligence on Questia.