The Robots are Coming: Are You Ready for a Revolution?

WHEN PEOPLE THINK OF robots, the first thing that comes to mind is R2-D2 from Star Wars. That’s why it’s a huge shock to learn that your vacuum cleaner, washer and dryer, and even a vending machine are all technically “robots.” While robots in the home are common and ordinary by comparison with science fiction, the story of robotics is just starting. From self-driving cars to robot security guards in malls to surgical robots, science is advancing at a rapid rate. Some robots are saving lives, others are doing dangerous jobs and still others are replacing humans based on their productivity and cost-effectiveness. A new report from Deloitte suggests that around 800,000 jobs have been lost due to new technologies over the last 15 years.

mit-ourrobots-2-pressIn this exclusive interview with COMMERCE, David Mindell, Ph.D., author of the book Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy (Viking Press, 2016) and a professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), discusses the many innovative uses of robots, and what to expect from them in the future.

COMMERCE: How will robots change the way humans live in the future?

DAVID MINDELL: I think at some level, the world is going to become the robot. The whole infrastructure that we live around is going to become technologically alive. Whether you are a person interacting with it, a robot interacting with it or a person interacting with a robot, those are all things we are going to have to do. That infrastructure is already alive in a lot of ways. It’s just going to become a little bit more digitally alive. Whatever happens with robotics, robots are going to have to work in human environments, whether they are driverless cars going through cities, robots in your homes or robots moving around in factories.

Q. What jobs will robots never be able to replace?

r2A. By definition, they cannot replace the jobs that involve human beings relating to other human beings. There’s a reason you go to a fancy restaurant instead of a vending machine. Most of
that has to do with how the humans in a restaurant treat you. As universities like my own deal with digital learning, it just highlights the parts of the learning that involve group cognition that happens in a classroom. Not all of it, though. There’s a lot of other stuff that goes on. Computers are pretty good at mediating relationships, but have not yet developed the ability
to replace them.

Q. How do you define a robot? When

does it go from a macw is a dishwasher in your kitchen not a robot for washing dishes? It is. However, most people do not think of it as a robot, but that’s exactly what it is. Generally speaking, people think of robots as stuff that moves around in the world one way or another. They used to think of them as humanoid-type looking things, but now we are increasingly aware that there are a lot of robots that are not humanoid at all.

Q. How do you believe a robot of today will compare to a robot in the future?

A. Robots today are not particularly good at living within human environments in safe and productive ways. Human environments are almost by definition economically productive environments.

robot sits
Therefore, robots are going to need to do a better job in living in this type of environment and being more aware.

Q. How affordable are robots? Can they be trusted with decisions?

A. These things have to become cheaper. It’s expensive to make them reliable. A lot of things we care about require them to become more reliable. Look at computers in airplanes. You have a $200 million airliner you fly on, and we are still not willing to take the pilots out of it altogether, even though most of the flight can be highly automated. That is partly because the pilot’s job is to react to unforeseen circumstances and serve as a social interface to passengers.

Q. What are the dangers of using intelligent robots?

A. I think we just have not really figured out how a lot of the algorithms that go into them can be made robust and safe enough to risk people’s lives on. When we do fill software systems
that are life critical, we tend to make them super deterministic. We are only now slowly learning to do that for the more intelligent type algorithms.

<img class="wp-image-7163 alignleft" src="//" alt="warp" width="158" height="157" srcset="// 2240w, //×1000 pop over to this site.jpg 1000w, //×765.jpg 768w, //×300.jpg 301w” sizes=”(max-width: 158px) 100vw, 158px” />Q. What are the opportunities that robots will create in the future?

A. There are enormous opportunities in the relationship between the physical world and the digital world. The digital world has exploded in its own way, but it still has limited reach to the
physical world. There’s a great deal to be done to use all of these technologies to enhance human experience and productivity, rather than replace it.

Q. Will robots ever look like us and live alongside us?

A. There are certain applications in which that might be useful. Some people argue that if you have to send a robot into a nuclear reactor or on a disaster relief mission, most of the things in those environments are built for human frames, so you might want to make a robot that looks like a human.

Q. What is the overall impact of robots? Good for people or bad for people?

A. Good for people. Of course, only when used properly.