X-Message-Number: 12685
From: Thomas Donaldson <>
Subject: more on robots and virtual robots
Date: Mon, 1 Nov 1999 23:03:14 +1100 (EST)

How is a robot and a virtual robot different?

A real robot (ie. such as the machines that wander about looking for 
electrical outlets) will actually find outlets and use them. This is not
the same as a program which imitates such a robot in a computer. The
difference comes from the difference between reality (and all the things
that can really get in the way of a real robot: obstacles of various 
kinds, things falling on it etc) and a fictional story.

Whenever we deal with computers, WE use or write a program for them. This
is essentially the same as telling them what to do on a more primitive
level --- it's just that what we tell them is much more complex. To tell
a computer to act like a robot (all inside the computer) creates a 
situation which isn't fundamentally different from that of writing a book
of fiction. The virtual robot has the same kind of existence as Hamlet in
Shakespeare's play. That Hamlet never existed; study of how it works may
tell us valuable things about real robots, but that still doesn't make
it a real robot.

Another possibility that Mike Perry seems not to discuss is that of a 
halfway robot: the robot still exists, but it is controlled by a computer
program in a computer (either in the robot or elsewhere doesn't really
matter). Yes, here we have a shading over. I would say that the same
problem exists as when EVERYTHING is virtual: the robot no longer is
doing what it wants, it's merely doing what we ask it to do by writing
the program we've written. If, on the other hand, we make a robot wired
so that it will search out an electrical outlet and plug itself in,
we have something that isn't a program (a purely symbolic construction)
but an object acting in the real world. Although we're getting very
close to a boundary here, I'd say that a robot controlled by a program
BURNED INTO A ROM would still qualify (it's the fact that we can change
the program which makes the situation in which we are simply telling it
what to do. Yes, we can remove that rom and put in another, too, but
note that we can also operate on simple LIVING brains and rewire them
too... say if it's the "brain" of an invertebrate such as Aplysia. But
that does not mean that the original creature wasn't just following our
CHANGEABLE instructions).

And note also that the original robot has a drive (and in a very primitive
sense, feelings). It wants to find a power outlet. A robot guided by
a program we write has no such drives, it merely does what we ask it 
to do by means of writing a program for it.  

			Best and long long life for all,

				Thomas Donaldson

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