Look out for ro­bots

The Covington News - - Opinion - BAR­BARA MOR­GAN COLUM­NIST Bar­bara Mor­gan is a Cov­ing­ton res­i­dent with a back­ground in news­pa­per jour­nal­ism, state gov­ern­ment and pol­i­tics.

Think about it: Do you ever go through your days or weeks re­spond­ing to sit­u­a­tions or to the peo­ple in your life as if you were a ro­bot? My an­swer, re­gret­tably, would be “yes.” I’m def­i­nitely not a pilot, but you could call me an “au­topi­lot.” My re­sponses, de­ci­sions and ac­tions of­ten de­rive from in­stinct or in­tu­ition, habit, cues from the peo­ple with whom I come in con­tact or com­monly per­ceived ex­pec­ta­tions in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions.

Could it be that built-in re­sponses that don’t take a lot of think­ing or anal­y­sis let us fo­cus more keenly on big­ger and more im­por­tant is­sues? Maybe, but then what’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween ro­bots and us?

Laugh tracks in sit­coms cue us when to laugh, and we’ll laugh or at least snicker. Peer pres­sure — and not just the kind that pre-teens and tweens ex­pe­ri­ence — mo­ti­vate cer­tain ac­tions and de­ci­sions. It’s called “keep­ing up with the Jone­ses.” The fam­ily next door gets a flat screen 54-inch tele­vi­sion, and his neigh­bor aims for a big­ger one and will leave the box on the curb just to prove it. A fash­ion­ista may de­clare that plaids are just the thing for the up­com­ing sea­son, and some of us will go out and buy plaid any­thing, even if it makes us look as big as a house. The cos­met­ics in­dus­try may de­clare that a bril­liant red lip­stick be­longs in ev­ery woman’s purse, and some will com­ply but in com­plete de­nial that red, red lip­stick only shows up yel­low­ing teeth. Fast food com­pa­nies and drug man­u­fac­tur­ers have cap­i­tal­ized very suc­cess­fully on our mind­less re­sponse to repet­i­tive ad­ver­tis­ing pitches.

Even worse, in my book, is when can­di­dates for po­lit­i­cal of­fice are sub­ject to de­mands to sign cer­tain pledges in or­der to curry sup­port with­out ever think­ing that those pledges will one day limit their abil­ity to make ed­u­cated and in­formed de­ci­sions on in­creas­ingly com­plex is­sues. One-di­men­sional prom­ises of­fer no sure guide for gov­ern­ing ef­fec­tively.

Now comes the Au­gust is­sue of Na­tional Geo­graphic Mag­a­zine to tell us that sci­en­tists are close to cre­at­ing ro­bots that think, feel, act, rea­son and re­spond like hu­man be­ings. Maybe they’ll be able to teach us some­thing! Surely the re­searchers at places like Pitts­burgh’s Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity, a hot­bed for ro­botic de­vel­op­ment, are learn­ing some­thing them­selves as they try to di­a­gram and dis­sect ev­ery hu­man ac­tiv­ity and emo­tion while try­ing to “teach” ro­bots to re­spond sim­i­larly to the sit­u­a­tions hu­man be­ings face daily.

The day is fore­seen when ro­bots will be able to cook, fold laun­dry, babysit or as­sist with el­der care when di­rected by a hu­man be­ing on a com­puter even some dis­tance away. Reid Sim­mons, a pro­fes­sor of ro­bot­ics at Carnegie Mel­lon, is quoted as say­ing, “In five or ten years, ro­bots will rou­tinely be func­tion­ing in hu­man en­vi­ron­ments.”

We’ve al­ready ac­crued good his­tory on the ef­fec­tive­ness of ro­bots on assem­bly lines or other man­u­fac­tur­ing en­vi­ron­ments, but ob­vi­ously dis­plac­ing many, many man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs and the peo­ple who used to hold them. (On the sub­ject, Ted Turner has fa­mously quoted his dad whose mantra was to em­ploy as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble — prof­itably. Ul­ti­mately in Ted’s busi­ness, ro­botic cam­eras would re­place many hu­man cam­era op­er­a­tors.)

Ro­botic re­search is pro­ceed­ing in di­verse di­rec­tions, ac­cord­ing to Na­tional Geo­graphic. Col­leagues at Van­der­bilt Univer­sity cre­ated a ro­botic sys­tem that would play a rudi­men­tary ball game with autis­tic chil­dren. The ro­bot is able to mon­i­tor a child’s phys­i­o­log­i­cal clues and de­ter­mine when the child is be­com­ing bored or ag­gra­vated. It then is able to al­ter the game in sub­tle ways un­til the child ex­presses plea­sure again.

The Home Ex­plor­ing Ro­botic But­ler, or HERB, is also in “train­ing” at the school and work­ing to­ward the day “he” might be able to as­sist with the el­derly. He has pres­sure­sen­si­tive ca­bles that work like hu­man ten­dons to en­able him to sup­port some­one need­ing as­sis­tance. He’s learned how to pick up dif­fer­ent forms of bev­er­ages, sens­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween, say, juice boxes and cof­fee cups. What he is not so good at yet is be­ing able to nav­i­gate among peo­ple. When he can’t fig­ure his way through a crowded space, he sim­ply re­mains in place and honks his horn.

Ge­or­gia Tech’s Ron­ald Arkin is cited as be­ing the re­searcher who’s made the most progress in designing ro­bots with eth­i­cal di­men­sions so that they might one day be, in a sense, “safer” in battle than hu­mans. Per­haps it’s anger, frus­tra­tion or fear that has mo­ti­vated some com­bat sol­diers to take aim at and kill civil­ians, but ro­bots wouldn’t be deal­ing with those sorts of emo­tions, Arkin be­lieves. “In short, they might make bet­ter eth­i­cal de­ci­sions than peo­ple,” writer Chris Car­roll sug­gests.

As for me, even a Roomba, the rov­ing vac­uum cleaner, is a lit­tle too creepy to com­pre­hend.

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