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Q&A: Our future living alongside robots

Q&A: Our future living alongside robots

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Social roboticist Heather Knight believes we can neither be too optimistic nor too negative when we think about our future with robots.

Heather Knight has a friend named Data who performs standup comedy. She actually taught Data everything he knows. She programmed him. Data is a robot, a very funny robot, and part of Knight's Marilyn Monrobot Labs in New York City. Knight has been working in robotics for just over a decade and is specifically interested in developing new ways for robots to interact with and help humans, to help us "flourish" as she puts it.

Recently her interests have focused on storytelling and performance either involving robots themselves, or inspired by our interactions with technology. She believes that one of the best ways to describe various potential futures with robots is through storytelling and narrative forms. In a way it's like visualizing our future, much like science fiction has done. She founded and produced the Robot Film Festival, and has co-produced a variety show called Cyborg Cabaret which explores the interdependence of technology and us.

SmartPlanet spoke with Knight about her social robot projects and why she is optimistic about technology's role in shaping our society and our selves.

SmartPlanet: You are a “social roboticist.” What is that?

Heather Knight: Social roboticists research how to make robots communicate like people do. This is important because a person can then walk up to a robot and—without training—figure out what it’s trying to do or be able to work with the robot. Rather than having to learn a programming language to ask this robot to fetch you something from the kitchen you could just talk to them. We specialize in the human-robot interface.

SP: Is this sort of like building an operating system for a computer so that the public never needs to understand code?

HK: Well, for me I work with non-verbal expression. And to explain what that is, I like to imagine this example: A human and their companion robot are walking across the street and having a conversation, and the robot sees a car coming but the person doesn’t. The most effective way to get the person out of harms way is not to very slowly express, “You-may-be-in-danger.” But rather to use body language to express that this is a severe situation or maybe to even physically pull them back. Incorporating tone of voice also helps along with motion and gesture.

SP: So presumably you work with psychologists?

HK: Yes, a lot of the time we do. But what I’ve started doing in the last few years is to collaborate with theater people. Performers have been thinking about how humans are expressive for thousands of years. And they think about how to train people to be expressive and how to codify what’s important. They have intuition about what can be charismatic, whether it’s a machine or a puppet or a person. I try to tap into that process because I think it’s faster than trying to reverse engineer human psychology.

SP: And Marilyn MonRobot—your lab based in New York City—is part of this collaboration.

HK: Yes, it’s a robot theater company with technology and performance. It’s an umbrella for many of the projects I do. Projects like the Robot Film Festival, the Robot Stand-Up Comedy, the Cyborg Cabaret, which is a live variety show.

SP: Which one of the projects has been the most interesting for you to work on?

HK: The cabaret was really great to see how a live production comes together. I did two pieces within the eight-act variety show. I did that project in collaboration with a fine arts graduate student, Dan Wilcox, so it was an interdisciplinary show. We had artists and performers and tech savvy people.

SP: Were robots interacting with the humans on stage?

HK: This was more about cyborgs. The sub-title was: Passion, Terror and Interdependence. Right now we are already cyborgs because we are so attached to the Internet and our phones—it’s modulating how we interact with each other, how we communicate, how we connect, how we value social status. So this cabaret was an examination of the relationship of being in a cyborg society. And the metaphor was that it is like any relationship…sometimes you want to completely destroy everything. Other times you think it’s the best thing in the world. And it has a similar range of passion as any romantic relationship.

SP: You are a big believer of the role of creativity in technical innovation and the fact that engineers are more and more becoming entrepreneurs and leaders rather than just problem solvers completing a job someone else assigned.

HK: Yes, well I think since the 1970s when we started making a lot more silicon chips, we started to live in a world where engineers are starting companies and not just working for other people. Engineers have become thought leaders and they start impacting society in big ways, since they are choosing the problems and changing the way we are moving forward.

So it’s important for them both to understand the ramifications of what they are doing and to expand their imagination to all the possibilities of where the technology can go. And that is a very creative process. Historically, science fiction has played an extraordinary role in inspiring people to think about what they want to create. Because if we can’t imagine it, it’s really difficult to make it.

SP: Storytelling is the route to innovation?

HK: I think true creators, entrepreneurs, technologists need to be story-tellers. They need to convince investors, customers that a new idea or product is something that will impact lives in a positive way. Steve Jobs was amazing at that.

One of the exciting things about directing the Robot Film Festival over the last two years was to create a slightly competitive environment where people can think about a future with robots and find new ways of incorporating robots into society. And to create these narratives before these “solutions” are even technologically possible. It’s as if they are simulating the future.

SP: A lot of people talk about the dark side of technology, about possible "robot uprisings." But in a very real way some might argue that the open source movement, which is causing technology costs to drop, opens up various risks. A bored hacker could do something quite damaging…by reprogramming a robot. But you are a lot more optimistic about our robot future.

HK: Right, but only being a techno-optimist is as naïve as only thinking that technology is going to destroy the world. We have to think about both sides. We need to think through what happens if we automate more factories and how that might impact society before we deploy a technology. It’s a really big deal.

SP: What is one example of thinking it through?

HK: So for example, take the creation of companion robots. Let’s say you want to keep your grand-dad healthy, and he is supposed to take medicine three times a day and memory problems are starting to crop up (a good example of this situation is in the current movie showing in theaters right now, Robot & Frank).

So you could A) Have the robot walk up to grand-dad and inject him with medicine, or B) Have the robot suggest to grand-dad that it’s time to take the medicine. This is something that enables grand-dad to be more independent rather than becoming part of a Panopticon.

I think the way we should judge technology is something that increases human freedom and something that allows us to flourish, and not just be happy. Happiness is hard to measure and we could just take a pill to be happy. But to think about what will make society move in a positive direction for the long term.

SP: What do you think about the stat from the World Robotics Report that half of all U.S. jobs will be turned over to robots by 2025?

HK: The future I believe is in robot-human teams, not in replacing humans. Machines can only do so much and more automation is not the cusp that we are currently on. Machines have limitations in places that we don’t, in terms of being creative, facing new situations, communication, even in terms of mobility. We are multifunctional and can adapt to many different situations. Robots are specialized. But when we put us together, like when you give me Wikipedia and I can learn about anything that I want to learn about. Or maybe my vision is impaired but you give me this car that can help me drive where I am still giving it the higher-level directive. That partnership empowers a person, and is making that person have a larger impact overall.

Taking a larger approach to thinking about where we want to go with technology, I think ought to involve storytelling. Stories encapsulate information in ways that illustrate issues very clearly. Take entertainment. Any political party or religion or racial background can enjoy a good movie. There is something about storytelling that brings people together and helps explain information in a non-dividing way.

I think using the storytelling tool at large is a way that we can process and move forward, in a positive way.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure