Photos via Getty, which may or may not be working with Google on a 'special collection' of robot images
The jury's still out on the new remake of Robocop, which hit theaters yesterday, but it so happens that the stalwart police force of Kinshasa has had a couple of automata on duty for at least a few weeks now. The stationary 'bots have been installed in a busy intersection in the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital city as a pilot program to replace the all-too-fallible humans who take shifts directing traffic on the ostensibly chaotic streets of Africa's third-largest city.
Designed by Isaie Therese of the Kinshasa Advanced Institute of Applied Techniques, the robots are essentially anthropomorphic semaphores (yeah, that term isn't catching on any time soon) that look something like cousins of Chinese DIYer Wu Yulu's homegrown mechas; in addition to the LED panels on each side of the solar-powered robots, they're also equipped with traffic cameras and have reportedly been more issuing tickets to scofflaws. Although the upshot is twofold—increased compliance and revenue for the local DOT—others note that the tradeoff is that a mechanized approach to law enforcement may not account for exceptions, i.e. first responders in case of an accident.
Francophones can learn more in this this video; "le vert" and "passé facilement" are easy enough, but unfortunately my French is not nearly good enough to understand what they're saying. Still, I was interested to hear the crossing-guard-o-tron's matter-of-fact baritone at 2:48 and again at 4:20, though it's not clear if they also pipe out muzak for pedestrians' dubious enjoyment.
If Kinshasa's solution is a proverbial baby step towards the rise of the machines, Fastco raises the question of the interaction design of the droids. Apropos the question of what they should actually look like, Humans Invent recently posted a nice summary of the "R2-D2 vs. C-3PO" debate in robotics; the general consensus is that the uncanny valley may yet span another century, until the point where "a couple of generations have grown up with robots."
So too are we at least a few generations away from Marvin or the T-800, but not for lack of effort: Artificial Intelligence notwithstanding, DARPA is forging ahead with their Robotics Challenge, for which they've posted the results (and a few 10+ hour videos) of the trials last December. Here's the short version:
That's the latest on the Paramilitary Threepio Front; I'll defer to roboticist Leila Takayama, who paints a rosier picture of a near-future full of demure Artoos:
Of course, the Kinshasa's robocops are perhaps best regarded as high-tech scarecrows, not sentient beings like Tik-Tok but merely traffic-calming sentinels à la the Hawthorne effect. I can't speak to the traffic woes of the bustling metropolis of nine million, but it so happens that the Atlantic Cities recently reported on a Transport Policy study analyzing the correlation between traffic light patterns and pedestrian safety in New York City. The results are inconclusive, but now I can't help but imagine a pirouetting robot, bedecked in flashing 'walk signals,' to indicate a so-called Barnes dance. (Fellow urbanism nerds can learn more in an in-depth report on NYC traffic by New York Magazine's Justin Davidson, in which he notes that our fair city implemented speed cameras just last year.)
One more for good measure: