Fear of ro­bots block­ing progress

San Antonio Express-News - - OTHER VIEWS - By Luis Sen­tis

have an ir­ra­tional fear of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, or AI, and this is com­pro­mis­ing our abil­ity to lead the di­rec­tion this rev­o­lu­tion­ary tech­nol­ogy takes in the fu­ture.

Pre­cip­i­tated by Hol­ly­wood’s fond­ness for movies that show ma­chines tak­ing over the world, this ir­ra­tional fear of AI is al­low­ing the com­pe­ti­tion — mainly China, which does not share this type of fear — to charge ahead in con­vert­ing new break­throughs into thou­sands of use­ful and com­mer­cially vi­able prod­ucts.

Th­ese are op­por­tu­ni­ties we are fail­ing to fully ex­ploit. AI im­ple­men­ta­tion in ev­ery­day life is al­ready a given, and our com­peti­tors, par­tic­u­larly in Asia, forge ahead un­per­turbed.

It is no co­in­ci­dence that the kind of sci­ence fic­tion cre­ated in Asian pop cul­ture fre­quently fea­tures be­nign and, at times, even heroic robotic and AI-in­formed char­ac­ters. This is noth­ing new. Ja­pan’s first fa­mous car­toon about a ro­bot, “Tet­suwan Atomu,” dates from 1951. Its name in Ja­panese refers to its atomic heart. There’s some­thing telling about a cul­ture will­ing to em­brace a char­ac­ter with a nu­clear heart just a few short years after Hiroshima and Na­gasaki.

No such cul­tural ex­am­ples ex­ist in the West. AI and ro­bot­ics in sci­ence fic­tion here are rarely de­picted in a pos­i­tive light. Ro­bots that have some­how de­vel­oped au­ton­o­mous con­scious­ness tend to be in con­flict with hu­mans, and the “ma­chine” is of­ten por­trayed as the en­emy.

In re­al­ity, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween man and ro­bot is tilted al­most en­tirely in our fa­vor. We build them to per­form tasks, and they obey — we are in con­trol.

In coun­tries such as China, where the gov­ern­ment, busi­ness com­mu­nity and pub­lic con­sider AI to be just an­other tech­nol­ogy to en­hance the qual­ity of life, new robotic ap­pli­ca­tions are rou­tinely in­tro­duced into every sec­tor of the econ­omy and so­cial scene.

No doubt there are some po­ten­tially con­tro­ver­sial ap­pli­ca­tions of the tech­nol­ogy that raise pub­lic con­cerns. Re­cent de­bates sur­round­ing AI and ro­bot­ics for au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles and for de­ci­sion-mak­ing in fi­nan­cial ser­vices, ed­u­ca­tion and the meAmer­i­cans

dia all in­tro­duce their own unique sets of ques­tions.

I am not de­fend­ing or con­demn­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion of AI in every sit­u­a­tion. What I will say, how­ever, is that the in­tro­duc­tion of driver­less cars, ro­bots with the fi­nal say on your loan ap­pli­ca­tion and pretty much every other new ap­pli­ca­tion pro­posed is met with knee-jerk skep­ti­cism — be it AI for war­fare, health care or day care.

The tech­nol­ogy is far from per­fect. But nei­ther are we, which is why the dan­gers posed by hu­man bias, not to men­tion hu­man er­ror, that have been built into au­ton­o­mous sys­tems are chal­lenges we must over­come while re­sist­ing the temp­ta­tion to con­demn AI out­right. Hu­man bias may be im­ped­ing a clear view of the ben­e­fits of AI and ro­bot­ics. Hu­man fear is block­ing our view en­tirely.

Ro­bots could help solve ma­jor macroe­co­nomic chal­lenges, such as the boom-bust eco­nomic cy­cle we ac­cept as some­thing out of our con­trol. So­cial progress might also be made if au­then­ti­cally prag­matic de­ci­sion-mak­ers were to ad­dress is­sues such as ra­cial dis­crim­i­na­tion, gen­der and wealth in­equal­ity. AI and ro­bot­ics can help us live longer, be health­ier, and pro­vide mo­bil­ity and phys­i­cal dex­ter­ity to those re­stricted through ill­ness or in­jury.

Fear of the un­known is a nec­es­sary

evo­lu­tion­ary trait. It helps pro­tect us from dan­ger. Per­haps this is why less en­ergy is spent mak­ing movies about the more re­al­is­tic sce­nario in which ro­bots re­mind us of the im­por­tance of hu­man val­ues such as com­pas­sion, equal­ity and fair­ness.

But fear also leads us to missed op­por­tu­ni­ties. The vast ma­jor­ity of engi­neers and sci­en­tists such as my­self who have de­voted their ca­reers to ad­vanc­ing ro­bot­ics and AI re­search do so with one goal in mind: to de­velop ro­bots that serve to en­rich the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence, not di­min­ish it.


Films like the “Ter­mi­na­tor” movies spark un­war­ranted fear of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. This is not the case in other coun­tries.

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