The Realm of Robots

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By: Account Manager, Shawna Ramsey

SXSW attracts some of the greatest minds in the scientific community. Rodney Brooks is someone that definitely has a seat at that table. He has a prestigious background as an Australian roboticist, Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, author and robotics entrepreneur. He is most well-known for his actionist approach. Basically, this translates into applying the principles of movement and reasoning to robots.

Brooks’s definition of a robot is something that does work. He feels that robots can be separated into two categories – teleoperated and autonomous.

·        Teleoperated robots are those that are controlled remotely by a human being. These robots are effective because they have a human being behind them applying reasoning and making decisions.
·        Autonomous robots perform behaviors or tasks with a degree of autonomy. Brooks mentioned that they are typically not very smart and while they may be able to adapt to environment they continue to have problems with dexterity. As an example, Brooks stood up, put a hand in his pocket and pulled out a quarter. He indicated that no robot can perform this simple act.

The interviewer asked Brooks if he has been disappointed in the progress made by robots thus far. Brooks indicated when the robotic movement started they anticipated successfully developing super intelligent robots that were made famous in science fiction films. That hasn’t happened. However, there have been some successes like the Roomba (Brooks’s invention), Baxter and Sawyer.

There was curiosity about Brooks’s position on the Autonomous Weapons letter that was issued this past summer. The letter was signed by the likes of Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and over a thousand of other leading experts. The contents outlined that artificial intelligence technology to make autonomous weapons feasible is years away from being realized. This fact raised concerns within the group about an artificial intelligence “arms race” being underway. Brooks mentioned that there never were weaponized robots at his last job, Rethink Robots. He stated that the Pentagon never probed for their creation and that in general he was morally opposed to their creation. However, he was able to illustrate a few instances where he would be willing to re-evaluate his position (ex. a robotics system that could reduce the loss of life on both sides).

Human fascination with robots is actively being projected onto ourselves with merging and CRISPR. Brooks said that merging is already occurring with the things that we are actively putting into our bodies (i.e. hip implants, cochlear implants, etc.). He foresees body modification becoming popular where we augment ourselves to become more robotic. CRISPR is gene splicing and editing. Studies are prevalent in this area. Eventually, CRISPR will provide us with the ability to have designer babies.

When asked about future opportunities for the robotics research community, Brooks made two suggestions: elder care and environment uses. His hypothesized that based on population trajectory it only made sense to look at building things that would allow people to be independent longer. He also felt that it was an area for huge potential in earnings – something that should pique the interest of big business. Brooks’s mention of environment uses may have conjured up for the audience pictures of Wall-E, the small waste collecting robot from the Disney film. However, Brooks offered up a few real-world examples of where it is beneficial like mapping / accessing environments and monitoring pollution levels.

As time moves forward, Brooks envisions that robots will become more ingrained in our daily lives. His view is that they will free us up to focus on more consequential tasks while they master the mundane responsibilities.

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