Thinking Tech

Our rising robot overlords: What is driving the coming upheaval

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The rise of robots may come sooner than we think. It's important to start thinking about laws and consequences.

We may be poised for the rise of robots after all. Popular sci-fi culture in the 1970s loved tales of robot overlords promising to overtake humans. And we waited for them to come true. Nothing happened. But now, we might just be on the edge of robot revolution.

Smart Planet recently reported on the dropping cost of an open-source robotic platform, meant to greatly increase the amount of robotic research around the world. And many claim the robot revolution will cause just as much upheaval in our lives as did the Internet and the PC over the last three decades. Better technology, falling prices and a new-found surge in open source operating systems set the stage for significant growth within the next decade.

In two years there will be 1.2 million robots working on Earth, that is one robot per 5,000 humans. As of 2010, there are 34 robots working per 1,000 people in Japan (see info graphic below from Focus and the World Robotics report.) It is estimated that by 2025 robots will have taken over a whopping half of all jobs in the U.S. The hardest hit industries are predicted to be: manufacturing, automotive and food services.

Already robots can climb walls, scramble up cliffs, drive cars, and plug themselves in to wall sockets. If you bought something on Zappos.com recently, chances are that item was retrieved by a robot.

Apparently that doesn't mean Americans will become obsolete, rather the hope is that robots will make Americans more productive, especially in the automotive industries. This is according to Ryan Calo, director of privacy and robotics at the Stanford Center for Internet & Society, who was recently interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle. Calo claims we are closer to the age of robots because of more powerful technology and slashed prices (reminiscent of Moore's Law?) He points to Microsoft's Kinect which sells for mere hundreds of dollars but would have cost thousands just three years back.

At the heart of innovation is the push for open source programming. Right now a companies like the Silicon Valley-based Willow Garage provide open-source operating systems that any academic can program for any purpose. It's this ability to experiment quickly (they don't need to re-build hardware every time they want a new type of robot) that will support a significant increase in robotic capability.

It reminds us of third party development for platforms like the iPhone and Android that then led to the proliferation of apps and other new uses for phones. Calo notes that this sort of openness within robotics comes with trepidation. He imagines the consequences if some bored hack decides to program his Roomba to play Frogger on a real highway.

Companies do not want to be held responsible for the craziness of humans. Calo believes that we need to start thinking about such situations and provide the same protections that were in place during the early days of the Internet. A small part of the Communications Decency Act of the 1990s that emerged intact from Supreme Court hearings, may be the savior of innovation. Section 230 states that the platform will not be liable as the publisher of what users publish. Imagine, Calo asks, if Facebook or Craigslist, or any news commenting system, would exist at all if such legality did not exist? This immunity helped pave the way to innovation in the Web. We need the same sort of immunity for manufactures of open robotics, says Calo. We cannot keep manufacturers liable for what the users might choose to program into their robots. If we do then companies like Willow Garage and others will simply not take the risk, and so academics are not able to quickly and voraciously experiment.

Calo points to what happened with Sony's AIBO robot dog. Basically the software allows the user to raise it from puppy to dog, along with giving the dog a bunch of voice commands. Users wanted to expand so the enterprising ones wrote their own programs and applications and it turned into a "vibrant library that everyone was excited about." But Sony intervened, sued over copyright issues, and the backlash caused Sony to close the entire line of AIBO. Later Sony rethought their decision and allowed the dog to ship with a software development kit included.

One of the more immediate examples of robots hanging out alongside us is the implementation of self-driving cars. This has already brought fear. The other week one of Google's self-driving Prius' slammed into another Prius. Google reported it had nothing to do with the software and the blame was on human error. Still, it makes us think of the possibilities.  Calo commented:

…whether or not a crash involving an autonomous vehicle causes a backlash will depend on the circumstances.
If an autonomous car is programmed to avoid strollers and shopping carts, but is confronted by both at once and swerves into stroller, then yes, robot driving is over in the United States. There's a lot of fear of robots, so maybe not matter what, as soon as a robot car fatality happens, that's it.
But my hope is that it won't. Hopefully, you'll have thousands and thousands of hours of uneventful driving and you can point to the statistics that show we have enormously reduced fatalities.

Unfortunately statistics never provides comfort to Americans, or any human for that matter. Next time you are taking off from JFK try telling your phobic neighbor that they have a greater chance of drowning in a bathtub than dying in a plane crash. You'll see first hand just how successful stats are.

[via the San Francisco Chronicle]

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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