Robot Futures

Robot Futures
June 12, 2015

Dr. Illah Reza Nourbakhsh delivered a Skype lecture titled Robot Futures at Information Technology University on May 20, 2015. The talk was on how we would share our world with robots and how our society could change as we incorporate a race of smarter and more connected intelligences. Dr. Nourbakhsh is Professor of Robotics, Director of the Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) lab and Head of the Robotics Program in The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. He has also served as Robotics Group lead at NASA/Ames Research Center. He is the author of the newly published MIT Press book for general readership, Robot Futures.

Dr. Nourbakhsh is ranked among the top 5 Roboticists in the world. In his Skype lecture, he mentioned several scenarios and then he talked about the social consequences of each scenario. He talked about how in this current age of robotics, social, economic and ethical boundaries are being pushed and we need to sit down and re-evaluate the boundaries. He gave the example of countries using unmanned aerial vehicles or drones in war zones, for surveillance and recognizance and for targeted killings and discussed the serious concerns regarding privacy, legality and safety that have been raised regarding their use.

Dr. Nourbakhsh also introduced the concept of Robot Smog, which states that robots can be used negatively. He gave the example of a Bum-Bot being used to chase away homeless people that used to squat in front of a restaurant in the United States. The owners of the restaurant took matters into their own hands and fitted the Bum-Bot with strong lights and a water cannon that were used on the homeless people. The Bum-Bot attracted a lot of positive news coverage, and the fact that no one talked about the ethical implications surprised Dr. Nourbakhsh. In another example, Professor Nourbakhsh talked about a powerful machine that McDonald’s is currently using. When a car comes into the McDonald’s driveway, the machine looks at the car that the customer is driving and estimates what food the customer will be ordering. This helps them have the food ready for the customer by the time he even steps in the door. This machine is already helping McDonald’s make millions of dollars but it calls into question concerns regarding privacy.

Dr. Nourbakhsh recalled an instance where a machine was fitted with a camera. The advantage of using the machine was that you were be able to see if anyone was carrying a weapon but on the downside, it would set off alarm bells if a child was carrying a water gun. Moreover, if a child sprayed the machine with a water gun, the machine would be completely destroyed. So the inventor of the machine simply suggested adding a taser and made the machine autonomous.

Other questions regarding ethics and robotics also arise. If we are in a car park and we see a robot driven car backing slowly into the only available parking spot in the car park, what would we do? Would we let the robot take the parking space or would we drive up quickly and park in the spot instead if we know that the other car is being driven by a robot.

Dr. Nourbakhsh talked about how the concept of singularity has been raised again and again in Hollywood movies such as I Robot, The Terminator and The Matrix trilogy. Singularity is a concept that robots will become smarter than humans. However, Dr. Nourbakhsh maintains that are nowhere near that scenario. He said that the biggest challenges that we are facing right now are that some companies such as Google and Facebook are becoming more powerful than most countries. This is a dangerous scenario since they have more information about us than even our parents do. Recently, Google announced that it was buying Boston Dynamics, a company that build robots that can run, climb, jump and even drive vehicles. This acquisition would stand to make Google even more powerful in the future world of robotics.

During the Q&A, Professor Nourbakhsh was asked how far down the line do people think about ethical issues when they are making and designing robots and he replied that people only think about these issues before they design the machine. He said, “We are technologists (nerds) and we are not given any social classes to think about the consequences but we should start thinking about them before long.”

Another student told him that Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist, had recently made the statement that in the coming 100 years, robots will take control over humans and the student went on to ask Professor Nourbakhsh that given this scenario how humans could rely on defense robotics then? Professor Nourbakhsh said, “We should worry more about pollution and these all-powerful companies in the present than this singularity 100 years in the future.”

At the end of the Skype lecture, Dr. Nourbakhsh received a standing ovation by the students. He said that he gives a lot of talks globally but he praised the fact that ITU students seemed to know a lot about robots and had asked important questions. Professor Nourbakhsh also said that he might come to ITU for a workshop in the future. This Skype lecture was organized by Professor Talha Rehmani for his class on Electronic Devices and Circuits but due to the popularity of this talk, the event was opened up for everyone.