Illah Nourbakhsh: I want to start with two risks that robot­ics chal­lenges human­i­ty with, empow­er­ment and dignity.

A man seated at an office desk, reaching to push a button on a machine on the desktop

Movies let us imag­ine the future. This is Fail Safe, 1963. You should all watch it. In this movie, we see two great nations dis­em­pow­ered by autonomous robot­ic tech­nol­o­gy. The bad news is that real­i­ty has caught up with that movie.

BumBot here, made by this gen­tle­man at home, a robot with high-pressure water can­nons that scares the home­less off the side­walk in front of his restau­rant. The robot­ics move­ment, just like the Internet, can ampli­fy the best and the worst in us humans. The dif­fer­ence is this is in the phys­i­cal world. 

And when you think about what we could be doing that’s empow­er­ing instead of dis­em­pow­er­ing, we’d have to start with the chil­dren. What we would have had to be doing now is instead of hav­ing our chil­dren become con­sumers of robot­ics tech­nol­o­gy, con­sumers of prod­ucts, we’d have to train them to be pro­duc­ers, to real­ize that they can use robot­ic tech­nolo­gies to build some­thing with their intu­ition, their cre­ativ­i­ty, and their sense of pur­pose, that has mean­ing to them. Then we’d have a tech­no­log­i­cal­ly flu­ent society.

But that’s not what we’re doing. Schools around the world don’t teach tech­nol­o­gy flu­en­cy. Instead we use robot­ic prod­ucts as robot­ics advances beyond our imag­i­na­tion. In fact, it advances to the point where the robots become dif­fi­cult dis­tin­guish from the humans. As my col­league Tony point­ed out, they get bet­ter and bet­ter at doing every­thing we can do. And I have a spe­cif­ic exam­ple for you from my friend in Japan, [Hiroshi] Ishiguro, where he’s actu­al­ly design­ing robots to look more and more like us. My next pic­ture is Ishiguro with his robot, a geminoid.

Hiroshi Ishiguro, shown from the waist up leaning slightly forward with his hand in front of him, mirrored by a robot modeled on his features

When you have robots that tend to look like us, and over time act like us, and per­ceive like us, and expect us to inter­act with them the same way, we lose our iden­ti­ty as peo­ple because we’re con­fus­ing iden­ti­fy of machine with the iden­ti­ty of human­i­ty. How will we behave when faced with machines that look like us? How will we dis­crim­i­nate them, and how will that dis­em­pow­er us? It does­n’t have to be that way. Robotic tech­nolo­gies can cel­e­brate our iden­ti­ty as humans. 

In the Hear Me project at Carnegie Mellon, we help chil­dren tell the sto­ry of the chal­lenges they face at school. They cre­ate media, then they build robots that tell their sto­ries, and we spread them in restau­rants and cafes around Pittsburgh, so that adults in the cafes and restau­rants that make deci­sions about those chil­dren are hear­ing the sto­ries of those chil­dren through robots. Those are robots for empow­er­ment. Those are robots that cel­e­brate the iden­ti­ty and chal­lenges that we face as humans. But that’s not fre­quent­ly the direc­tion we go in. 

A hammer, flashlight, and small robotic toy laid out on a tabletop.

Now let me turn to the side of dig­ni­ty. And this is a real­ly impor­tant point about human­i­ty. How we treat autonomous machines mat­ters. Famous exper­i­ment, where you bring in par­tic­i­pants who play with the robot on the right using a flash­light. Then the researcher says, The robot­’s not per­form­ing well. Now kill it,” and they give you a ham­mer. And they video record this. They watch how many times you smash it. This is play­ing with fire. We’re cre­at­ing robots in which peo­ple per­ceive agency. Then we’re ask­ing them to treat the robot inhu­mane­ly, on pur­pose. It does­n’t have to be that way. 

A small robot, roughly resembling two yellow foam balls stacked atop each other, with eyes and a nose.

Keepon, devel­oped in Japan and Carnegie Mellon, teach­es autis­tic chil­dren to dance. Because it’s not human look­ing, it’s eas­i­er for autis­tic chil­dren to deal with. That’s the direc­tion we ought to be going, but how many prod­ucts do that? Very few indeed.

One final chal­lenge for you is an exam­ple of what we could be doing. Air pol­lu­tion, as you all know, is a mas­sive prob­lem glob­al­ly. It kills more peo­ple than breast can­cer, AIDS, prostate can­cer, car crash­es, put togeth­er. So par­tic­u­late mat­ter mat­ters. But it’s invis­i­ble. And it’s not just an urban prob­lem. We know this prob­lem exists in rur­al areas. I myself have gone to Uganda, Bukoba and [Simbi?], and mea­sured air pol­lu­tion in sin­gle room hous­es like that at a thou­sand times unsafe lev­els of particulates.

So we know this is a prob­lem, and heart­break­ing­ly, that’s the house where some­body lives, sleeps, eats, and cooks. So chil­dren are, day and night, sub­ject­ed to exact­ly the things that will cause car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, pul­monary dis­ease, and even now linked to autism and ADHD hyper­ac­tiv­i­ty disorder.

So we know that is a major prob­lem. Yet we know how to make robots that can sense the par­tic­u­late mat­ter. We’ve demon­strat­ed this at CMU again. They can sense the par­tic­u­late mat­ter. They can dis­play it to the home­own­er. They can run an elec­tric fan charged by solar pow­er. Exhaust the smoke when nec­es­sary. And even pro­vide light in an envi­ron­ment, the indoor Ugandan kitchen, which has for­ev­er been dark.

That’s the kind of robot tech­nol­o­gy we know how to cre­ate. That cre­ates dig­ni­ty for human­i­ty, and it empow­ers that per­son to under­stand the sys­tem of their house as a place where they can man­age the air pol­lu­tion. But that’s not the direc­tion we tend to go in robot­ics. It does­n’t have the prof­it mar­gin for our busi­ness society.

So I want to end by point­ing out that if we start­ed with the young­sters and taught them robot­ic tech­nol­o­gy as pro­duc­ers, as cre­ators of arti­fact, and we’ve demon­strat­ed this in Pittsburgh, you can go far in chang­ing the pow­er dynam­ics. But I’m going to say the risks out­weigh the oppor­tu­ni­ties until we decide that robots are not prod­ucts, but raw mate­r­i­al for peo­ple who are tech­no­log­i­cal­ly flu­ent to cre­ate a new society. 

Further Reference

Illah Nourbakhsh at the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute.

Robot Futures, Illah’s book explor­ing spec­u­la­tive robot inter­ac­tion sce­nar­ios, and asso­ci­at­ed blog.