While surfing Netflix a few months back, I came across the 1982 movie Blade Runner and realized that it’s set in the year 2019 — five years from now. While it now seems prophetic in its depiction of employment opportunities and the economy, it seems pretty clear that five years from now I will not have a flying car, and sentient androids will not run around the city. The Jetsons was set in the 2060s, so there’s a slight chance that we all might have robot maids by then, but by that point, I’ll probably be too old to appreciate how cool the future is.
The possibility of making robot dogs before then looks a little more likely, especially after an announcement earlier this week. Scientists from Swansea University in the U.K. believe they’ve figured out how sheepdogs round up sheep, and that they’ve developed a mathematical model that could be used to automate the process.
It wouldn’t apply only to sheep if it works out; the team says that the same algorithm could be applied to crowd control or cleaning up oil spills.
According to the scientists, it turns out that the dogs don’t focus on the sheep themselves. Instead, they see the gaps between the sheep, and try to close them by herding the animals together. Once the sheep are in one big crowd, they can be driven forward to wherever the shepherd and the dog want.
“What’s so interesting about this is how simple the rules are,” Dr. Andrew King said in an interview with the BBC. “At the beginning we had lots of different ideas. We started out looking from a bird’s-eye view, but then we realized we needed to see what the dog sees. It sees white, fluffy things. If there are gaps between them or the gaps get bigger, the dog needs to bring them together.”
The sheep gather into one group because of something called the “selfish herd theory,” according to King: “One of the things that sheep are really good at is responding to a threat by working with their neighbors. It’s the selfish herd theory: Put something between the threat and you. Individuals try to minimize the chance of anything happening to them, so they move towards the center of a group.”
The hows and whys are fascinating, but not quite as interesting as the technological possibilities and the implied questions. The press and the scientists have talked about how this development might ultimately put Border Collies out of work, replaced by ‘droid dogs. That, of course, begs the question: What kind of robot dogs would we get from such an algorithm? Would they be plucky and loyal, ready to defend us from invading hordes of space aliens like K-9 on Doctor Who? Or would they be more like the machines in Terminator and The Matrix, destined to run amok and slaughter the human race, enslaving the few survivors?
Neither the BBC nor the Telegraph consider these questions, but when designing robot dogs — or any other robot — they’re important to consider. What do you think? Could machines replace sheepdogs, and if so, would that bee a good thing?
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