Hi, Robot: Work and Life in the Age of Automation, reads the Hamlet-inspired cover of the July, 2105 issue of Foreign Affairs. The clever cover highlights the issue’s main theme, artificial intelligence and robotics, - a set of technologies that some fear could one day threaten our very existence.
As its introductory article reminds us “new technologies have been revolutionizing the world for centuries, transforming life and labor and enabling an extraordinary flourishing of human development. Now some argue that advances in automation and artificial intelligence are causing us to take yet another world-historical leap into the unknown.”
Speculations about a future radically transformed by technology are nothing new. But, with AI and robots seemingly everywhere, the concerns surrounding their long term impact may well be in a class by themselves. Like no other technologies, AI and robots force us to explore the boundaries between machines and humans. Will they turn out like other major innovations, e.g., steam power, electricity, cars, - highly disruptive in the near term, but ultimately beneficial to society? Or, will we see a more dystopian future, as smart machines increasingly encroach on activities requiring intelligence and cognitive capabilities that not long ago were the exclusive domain of humans? Opinions abound, but in the end, we don’t really know.
Robots, in her opinion, are a major part of the natural evolution of computing. In the beginning, all computers were relatively expensive big boxes. Then came personal computers, which over time more than fulfilled Bill Gates’ once quixotic dream of “a computer on every desk and in every home.” Over the past decade, the mantle has been passed to the billions of smartphones carried by a large portion of the world.
In a 2014 interview, Professor Rus said that in 10 - 15 years she expects robots to be as commonplace as smartphones, “with personal robots that can help with everything from doing search-and-rescue operations to folding the laundry.” Her MIT research group, the Distributed Robotics Lab, has built robots that can “tend a garden, bake cookies from scratch, cut a birthday cake, fly in swarms without human aid to perform surveillance functions, and dance with humans.” The line between consumer appliances and robotics is already blurring with products like the Roomba vacuum cleaner. Moderately priced programmable, collaborative robots, initially aimed at manufacturing, are already available from a number of companies.
“Still, there are significant gaps between where robots are today and the promise of a future era of pervasive robotics, when robots will be integrated into the fabric of daily life, becoming as common as computers and smartphones are today, performing many specialized tasks, and often operating side by side with humans,” adds Rus. “Current research aims to improve the way robots are made, how they move themselves and manipulate objects, how they reason, how they perceive their environments, and how they cooperate with one another and with humans.”
Why is robotics such a hot discipline? All computers, - whether mainframes, PCs or smartphones, - are defined by what their brains, - that is, their hardware and software, - are capable of computing and controlling. Robots are computers that have both a brain and a body. A robot’s capabilities is defined by what its brains and body can jointly do.
Digital technology advances have greatly benefited the robot’s brains, as they have those of all other computers. In addition, the electromechanical components used in robotic devices are also advancing rapidly, making it possible to imagine the leap to whole families of personal robots in the not too distant future. According to Rus, the integration of robots into everyday life requires progress in three key areas.
It takes too long to make new robots. For the most part, general purpose computers all use similar hardware and software components. But, there are many different kinds of robots available today, each one having a body specifically designed for its task. As a result, each kind of robot body must be individually designed and produced, and its body capabilities are difficult to extend to new tasks and applications.
“What’s needed are design and fabrication tools that will speed up the customized manufacturing of robots,” notes Rus. We need something like a robot compiler “that could take a particular specification - for example, I want a robot to tidy up the room - and compute a robot design, a fabrication plan, and a custom programming environment for using the robot.”
Robots have a limited ability to perceive and reason about their surroundings. Computers have made huge advances in automating those human tasks that can be well described by a set of rules. But, despite continuing advances in AI, the challenges of applying computers and robots to tasks requiring flexibility, judgment, and common sense are still quite large.
The reason is that our actions are guided by two very different kinds of knowledge. Explicit knowledge is formal, codified, and can be readily explained to people and captured in a computer program. Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is the kind of knowledge we are often not aware we have, and is therefore difficult to transfer to another person, let alone to a machine. Tacit knowledge is generally learned through personal interactions and practical experiences. Everyday examples include speaking a language, riding a bike, driving a car, and easily recognizing many different objects and animals.
“Today’s robots can perform only limited reasoning due to the fact that their computations are carefully specified. Everything a robot does is spelled out with simple instructions, and the scope of the robot’s reasoning is entirely contained in its program. Furthermore, a robot’s perception of its environment through its sensors is quite limited. Tasks that humans take for granted - for example, answering the question, Have I been here before? - are extremely difficult for robots… it is hard for a machine to differentiate between features that belong to a scene it has already observed and features of a new scene that happens to contain some of the same objects.”
Robotic communication is not reliable. Much progress is also needed to significantly improve communications among robots and between robots and humans. Robots can’t function effectively without adequate bandwidth, or if attempting to communicate in a noisy environment where extraneous signals make it difficult to send and receive commands. This is a particularly serious problem when trying to use robots in the kind of general environment humans live in, as would be the case with transportation or search-and-rescue missions.
“Personal computers, wireless technology, smartphones, and easy-to-download apps have already democratized access to information and computation and transformed the way people live and work. In the years to come, robots will extend this digital revolution further into the physical realm and deeper into everyday life, with consequences that will be equally profound.”