I’m all for the use of surgical robots, or the emerging field of ‘drone journalism’ for data gathering, and even exoskeletons. But could others go too far?
Two types of robots worth considering this week:
Exhibit A: Robots in the battlefield. The Guardian reported that AI experts have called for a boycott of South Korea’s Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). The arms race for autonomous robots as machines of war is real. The US Military with Lockheed Martin has been developing autonomous armored vehicles.
Exhibit B: Then there’s the more benign use of a robot –in a coffee shop! The Da Vinci surgical robot (which I have written about) was used in a ‘demo’ of sorts in Kullman, Alabama, to give people a chance to see its capability in a friendly setting. This robot typically handles gall bladder and hernia procedures. (No fear, it’s not an autonomous bot.) Nice touch, humanizing this strange-looking refrigerator-sized 4-arm robot.
The point being, teaching robotics ought to come with a layer of ethics. It’s not enough to be develop breakthrough robots just because we can. There is such a thing as the 4 Laws of Robotics, as written up by Science Fiction writer, Isaac Asimov. They are:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
- A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
The fourth law was added later by Asimov. We may have begun crossing the line, and ignoring it.
Interestingly, the UN this week has addressing the pace of robotics, through the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) agreement, and the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. Lots of semantics in the debate, with regard to ‘autonomous’ and ‘automated’ and what constitutes ‘human control’ of these devices.
Robots are great until they carry out tasks that take humans out of the equation. Or when they attempt to use ‘data’ as a substitute for insight.
For this reason I am not exactly excited about self-driving cars – and I pass some of these each week in the Gilbert area. (Bummer! Uber’s autonomous vehicle met with a 3-vehicle crash last week) Besides the safety aspect, there’s the real long-term effect of erosion of jobs. Those jobs that involve routine manual tasks. Think of warehouse work, or on-demand ‘runners’ and movers that make a factory work.
As fascinating as this demo below seems, it’s the dark side of what robots could do to the workplace.
If there’s any upside of this, it’s that companies that defining this future are hiring people with emerging engineering and science (STEM) backgrounds. The company who developed this cart says it is hiring a ‘Computer Vision Scientist‘ – someone with math skills, and experience in LIDAR, radar, sonar, GPS etc.
I love it! The smart cart can ‘see’ and find its way through a messy warehouse. But it needs a scientist with ‘computer vision‘ in his/her title to bring such technologies to fruition. At least it’s a raison d’être for STEM education. People who can carry out cognitive, problem-solving tasks that bots cannot. Yet.
So as #Flooding and #StormSurge is on everyone’s mind with havoc from hurricanes Harvey and Irma, it is unhappily timely that robotics in schools and clubs across the country are wrapping their minds around an H2O challenge. Specifically, ‘Hydro Dynamics.’
It’s this year’s theme for the FIRST Lego League that will culminate in tournaments between November and December. (Interestingly, the theme of the FIRST Global ‘Olympics‘ in July was H2O Flow ) Alongside the work on building and programming a bot to run missions, students must work on a research project. How water is sourced, conserved, distributed etc. They must also come up with a solution that ‘adds value to society’.
Right now there are a myriad of issues that experts and government officials are wrestling with. Could students hypothetically solve some of these in the future? Dean Kamen’s FIRST outfit has been doing an amazing job of using robotics to build a new cadre of engineers, designers, and problem-solvers.
As I watch my school team assemble the missions in my lab, it’s evident that each mission (built of Lego pieces) is more complex this year: There’s a ‘Pump addition’ mission, a Water Treatment model involving ‘Big water’, and others involving Pipe Replacement, and Sludge Removal.
Here is what the field mat looks like.
Washington DC’s humidity hovered around 90 percent when the competition began on 16 July. Team Sri Lanka’s four students were sweating bullets for different reasons. In a crowded basement, parked between Senegal and Sudan their 20-wheel steel robot needed some repair work.
The bot that they built in secret in a classroom in Colombo (they called it ‘Area 52’) arrived with a warped axle and damaged omni-wheels. Two hours before departure the airline forced them to repack the 23-kilo microwave-sized contraption into two boxes. The next day the motor failed –not an uncommon problem among teams here.
But they did take on the world! In this competition, designed by FIRST Global like the Olympics, each team worked in ‘alliances’ – groups of three country teams. It was fascinating to watch each team, battling cultural and language barriers (and jet lag and sleep) work through the constraints and perform. My family and I were so proud to be there supporting them.
They did quite well in strategy and design of the bot. In terms of rankings they were placed 138th out of 163 teams – beating the US, France, and Russia. When you consider they had just 9 weeks to prepare for this (many teams had at least 12 weeks), it was quite a feat.
Kudos to coach Dilum Rathnasinghe who took on such an unthinkable task. The team comprised: Ali Anver, Ishini Gammanpila, Vinidu Jayasekera and Akash Gnanam
Here are some images from the 163-team, 157-nation Robotics Olympics. Read previous post here.
Modeled on the Olympics, FIRST Global’s inaugural international robotics event began on July 16th.
This was the opening ceremony.
I just interviewed Kris Canekeratne, CEO of Virtusa, a 20,000-strong global business consulting and IT outsourcing company headquartered in Massachusetts. Among the many strands we talked about, I was fascinated by his take on learning, and how schools ought to be the ‘ignition’ for curiosity.
“Students have an innate proclivity to curiosity,” he says – no different how engineers are inherently curious, with problem-solving and design thinking as part of their skill set. If only we could design schools to be the spark plugs of knowledge! It’s time we began exposing students to Big Data, Nanotech, AI, user experience, and gamification, he says, instead of teaching them how to memorize material just to pass exams.
To this end, here’s an example of design-thinking class at a Charter School in Berkeley, California.