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SXSW: Five Questions About Robots And Artificial Intelligence

by Molly Evans 13 Mar 2016 10:03 PM

How well do we humans really know and understand robotics and artificial intelligence in 2016?

Austin Convention Center on Sunday, March 13, 2016. Photo: Molly Evans

I attended the 23rd annual SXSW Interactive conference this weekend to explore a variety of issues and inspirations currently surfacing in the world of technology. 

In this day and age, we humans become both more dependent on and more fearful of the seemingly ever-increasing capabilities of robots and the sentience of artificial intelligence. Robots answer our questions both serious and silly. They work in factories, completing tedious and repetitive tasks that humans no longer want to do. Robots serve as heroes and villains in blockbuster films and media coverage. But how well do we humans really know and understand robotics and artificial intelligence in 2016?

Rodney Brooks, the chairman of Rethink Robotics, former director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab and founder of iRobot, said he’s pretty disappointed with the current state of robotics. His projections based on a multi-decade career and his fantasies rooted in science fiction have proven to be overestimations. All that to say, he’s still pleased at the progress in the field.

Brooks, well-known for his creations of Roomba, an autonomous robotic vacuum as well as Baxter and Sawyer, collaborative robots used primarily in manufacturing, spoke with Nicholas Thompson, editor of, about the current state of robotics and A.I.

Here five questions Brooks answered about robots and A.I. and where humanity comes into play.

What is a robot?

“A robot is a machine that senses the world, does some computation, makes a decision, and acts outside its body,” Brooks said. Robots do something physical. The root of the word — “robota” — is Czech for something that does work.

And there are two main types of robots:

Teleoperated robots, which are operated remotely by a person and autonomous robots, which aren’t nearly as capable or intelligent as teleoperated bots, Brooks said.

“A robot with a human involved can do almost anything,” Thompson said. Autonomous robots have issues with dexterity. Brooks stood up rustled a coin from his pants pocket and said an autonomous robot could not replicate that simple action because of the lack of dexterity — hand skills.

In what areas are robotics developing?

Eldercare. With the impending shift in age of the population to become an older majority, robotics will boom as a field, Brooks said. Older people will need machines to care for them, and the research and production of those machines will drive robotics for the next 10-15 years, Brooks said.

For young roboticists, choosing where to work depends on your interest, Brooks said. If it’s money, go into eldercare research. For world-savers, go into environmental clean-up. For out-of-this-world enthusiasts, delve into the aerospace and astronomical fields.

How do robots affect the economy and job market?

People are often concerned about the advancement of robots threatening job availability, Brooks said. While most people in the SXSW audience didn’t need to worry, Brooks said, the danger lies for drivers for ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft in the next 10-15 years.

Strangely, ATMs took work from bank tellers, but there are more tellers for some reason, Brooks said. He added most people, particularly members of China’s rising middle class, don’t want the tedious assembly line jobs. The robots of today can only do the dull repetitive tasks because they’re not dexterous. And humans still have the upper-hand cognitively, operating robots to reach their full potential.

Whether robots will continue to take the lower-level jobs from people, “we’ll see,” Brooks answered coyly. “There is a hauling out of the middle class.” The jobs for the middle class have not been growing as much as higher-level jobs. The question then is: How can we find more jobs to employ people?

Do robots pose a threat to society?

“All questions are more complex than simple answers,” Brooks said.

The question stemmed from Microsoft’s Bill Gates, inventor and investor Elon Musk and physicist Stephen Hawking’s open letter warning against the potential for artificial intelligence developments to become dangerous to society, particularly when used in warfare.

Brooks used an example of the rationality, or lack thereof, involved in making moral conclusions about artificial intelligence’s interactions with humanity.

Three thousand people die per day in car accidents, he said. None have died at the hands of a self-driving car — yet.

“What happens when the first person dies by a self-driving car? All hell will break lose, even though 3,000 die every day. There is no rationality.”

How quickly are robots developing in this day and age?

Brooks thinks Gates, Musk and Hawking are overestimating how close the field is to achieving superhuman intelligence within robotics.

“We don’t know what the mechanism is for intelligence,” Brooks said. “We can’t build a robot as smart as a dog right now.”

A photo app could detect that people are playing frisbee, but could the app tell you the rules of frisbee; the concept of play and what the players are like on a personal level?

“We’re a lot further off from where people think we are.”

Brooks admitted to sounding like a wet blanket when maybe decades ago, the roboticist would have exclaimed about all the capabilities of the latest and greatest machine and the media representative would have been skeptical.

“Now the media is saying we’re gonna have this and this. No, we’re not! It’s really hard!”

Robots don’t have intent. They are presented with a task. They can do specific things, but they’re not aware of all the ideas around it, he said.

What’s the relationship between humans and robotics?

“There are no limits to human vanity,” Brooks said. People will want to optimize themselves with robotic capability fairly soon. Humans become a little more robotic as human intelligence among robots becomes more attainable, he said.

“More chips will go in.” Rather than clinical procedures like replacing a broken hip, people will want to modify their body to be better in some capacity, he said.

Watch a Robin Williams, who plays a robot in “Bicentennial Man” prove he’s human at heart: