Why our roboticists are working for the 99 percent

Been busy writing so rather behind on my blog posts at the moment….here are a brace to keep you going…

Read in full my latest piece for Wired (UK,online) below or online by clicking here.

This piece was inspired by this blog post by Professor Alan Winfield…Roboticists Need To Get Political

Robots are taking over the world — well, the front pages — and are being blamed for the pre-crime of creating a dystopian world that may see huge numbers of jobs destroyed and enormous amounts of wealth concentrated into the hands of ever fewer people. To prevent this nightmare scenario, roboticist and science communicator professor Alan Winfield from the University of the West of England (UWE) and the Bristol Robotics Lab is calling on roboticists “to get political”. Winfield is on the British Standards Institute working group on robot ethics, which recently published a draft guide to the ethical design and applications of robots and robotic systems.

“I am not an activist, but I am getting more political. I am worried that more publicly funded research is being hidden behind the closed doors of the private sector, and I think other roboticists should be as well,” he says.

“Most people who do science and engineering research know they aren’t going to get rich. They have a passion for their work that goes beyond self-interest. They are concerned above all that their innovations should benefit the whole of humanity.

“They are idealists who would be dismayed by the possibility that their innovations might instead primarily help to enrich the 0.1 percent.”

But do other roboticists agree with professor Winfield that they need to “get political”?

To find out, WIRED.co.uk asked six of the UK’s leading roboticists what they think. Here is what they had to say.

“We don’t do military [applications] because if you are going to kill someone you should be prepared to get up close and kill them with a knife and get covered in their blood,” says Jackson, director of Engineered Arts, which manufactures eerie humanoid and semi-humanoid robots featuring natural, human-like movement and advanced social behaviours. “If you automate killing it becomes the Terminator scenario because it becomes much easier for politicians to order people to be killed. It’s not technophobic to argue this. If you invent the atomic bomb you will become death, destroyer of worlds — so heads up, and look where you’re going. Too often if you do say something about this you get the kind of ‘are you with us or against us?’ response from the rest of the community.”

When it comes to employment issues, Jackson also toes a firm line. “I do not have any truck with the ‘dignity of manual labour’ b******s. There is no dignity in manual labour. As much as it seems painful to have jobs automated, the real issue is not the robots but the redistribution of wealth, and that’s a political question. So if you blame robots, that is a UKIP argument. Robots don’t cause unemployment any more than immigrants do.”

“I think most European academics are very uncomfortable with their work being appropriated at the cost of others: increasing inequality, military use and so on. US academics sometimes think differently, mainly because the purse strings to almost all research funding (certainly in robotics) are held by Darpa, the defence agency,” says Belpaeme, professor of cognitive systems and robotics.

“I would indeed be disappointed to see technology benefit only the few rather than the many, but at the same time I know that this will happen with some technology. However, almost all technology has been a catalyst for empowerment for the many. I don’t see any reason why this wouldn’t be the same for robots.”

“What motivates me in medical robotics is the potential of bringing something better to all of us — and why not get rich in the process?” says Dogramadzi, reader in robotics and a pioneer in the use of surgical robotics. “I am not sure that we object to getting money for what we do, but I don’t think that we do robotics research to help anyone get rich.

“I would not like the idea that big corporations would use what we do to create more wealth for themselves by selling our research back to us for a lot of money. If we take a commercial entity on board with our research it is to empower small companies to innovate and bring new technologies to users. Most often, however, we have an open access policy.”

“Think about how much stuff we move — people, milk, cars, mail, bricks — and all of this will be impacted by autonomy if we as a society wish that to be so,” says Newman, BP professor of information engineering and cofounder of Oxbotica, which will provide control systems for 40 autonomous pods as part of the U K government’s £19 million Autodrive project.

“Technology offers options, it has always made things better, this argument is clear and over. The transitions can be hard and challenging, but we as a collective are smart enough to reject things that don’t work for us. We really are.”

“I am passionate about working on applications for micro-drone technology for the benefit of humanity,” says Kovac, director of Imperial’s Aerial Robotics Laboratory and lecturer in aero-structures. His research interest is the conception, design and testing of novel, biologically inspired flying robots for environmental sensing and emergency-response applications.

“I can’t control the world — there is a limit in what I can do — but the applications I am interested in are really for the benefit of humanity, like search and rescue, and construction and reconstruction. Of course I want to work in star-ups and of course I need money to survive, but it’s not one of the main drivers. Otherwise I wouldn’t be working in academia.”

“I very much agree with Alan’s take on this,” says Sharkey, emeritus professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield and chairman of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.

“One of the great risks is unemployment. Some roboticists declare that the jobs people will no longer have to do [will be] menial jobs in the future. But there are many unskilled people who rely on these jobs to feed their family. We need to think about this well in advance and ensure that big companies are not drawing in vast wealth while unemployed workers and their families starve.

“Individual roboticists will not really be fully responsible. As researchers we are interested in the science of robotics. It is the manufacturers who will be responsible for what they market the technology for and the end users will be the ones who replace their workers.
“Robotics experts should be thinking ahead to bring these issues to the attention of those who matter and who it will affe

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