Author, CMU alum Daniel H. Wilson kicks off Robotics Week

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Despite the wanderings of his imagination, Daniel H. Wilson doesn't actually believe humanity will surrender to robot overlords -- at least not anytime soon.

In fact, the bestselling science fiction author thinks the world is likely to see sci-fi concepts that are more "Jetsons" than "Robopocalypse" over the next few years.

"Natural language or that kind of artificial intelligence we're pretty far away from. But we can have robots come in to a business or home and use their arms to work tools, wash dishes, run the washing machine. I can see that happening within the next decade. It's already happening to some extent," he said.

Mr. Wilson, author of the New York Times bestselling sci-fi epic "Robopocalypse," kicked off Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Week celebration Thursday as keynote speaker for the Teruko Yata Memorial Lecture in Robotics. Mr. Wilson holds a doctorate in robotics from the Oakland university.

The lecture, "Sci-fi Destroys the Future, Science Builds It," set the tone for Friday's schedule of events at the Robotics Institute Lab. The day starts with a four-hour tour of the institute, which includes peeks at CMDragons, small soccer-playing robots; the collaborative robots CoBots; and demonstrations of autonomous flight technology and robotic airboats.

Another highlight of the day will be the 19th annual Mobot Races, where students have raced self-constructed feats of engineering ranging from video streaming robots to trained rats over the years.

For Mr. Wilson, who said his work is often influenced by new technological innovations surrounding him, the fair is an opportunity to both absorb and spark inspiration.

With "Robopocalypse," a dystopian novel in which the scattered remains of humanity fight a world full of sentient machines, Mr. Wilson set the robot awakening only a few years ahead of real time. As thousands of software programs send malicious instructions to remote machines in today's wired world, he said he liked the idea of using existing technologies to set off humanity's demise.

The novel, released in 2011, is being adapted into a feature film by Dreamworks Pictures to be directed by Steven Spielberg. Originally scheduled for production this February, Mr. Wilson said Mr. Spielberg had "an epiphany" regarding a plot twist that would delay the project until later this year.

"There is no time travel, there are no mad scientists. It's all just the result of unintended consequences," he said.

Mr. Wilson noted that novelists exploring the consequences of technology also can give scientists and engineers ideas to improve or enhance existing projects.

His latest novel, "Amped," which features brain implants that give users superhuman powers, can find its roots in technologies such as a wireless neural implant created by Brown University researchers that allowed monkeys to control computers with their minds.

More than the technology itself, Mr. Wilson said an exploration of the repercussions of technology is one of the most important features of the relationship between science and sci-fi.

"I like the underlying themes that come from technology. Every time we create something with more powerful technology that makes us question whether we're using it for good or for evil. I like how technology amplifies our moral decisions," he said.

Whatever decisions human beings ultimately make with emerging technologies, Mr. Wilson believes people can survive both good and bad consequences.

"I love how adaptable human beings are. We're scrappy little mammals," he said "Any robot that wants to start something should think twice."

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Deborah M. Todd: or 412-263-1652.


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