Robots in the Movies should be taken seriously

The Grandfather of Terminator: Screenshot from "L'uomo meccanico" (Italy 1921)
The Grandfather of Terminator: Screenshot from „L’uomo meccanico“ (Italy 1921)

At the recent workshop on Autonomous technologies and their societal impact at the SIPRI Institute in Stockholm several presenters criticized the media and especially the movies for drawing a wrong and exaggerated picture of robotics and AI, thus inappropriately fueling fears of robots taking over. I was surprised, though, to see this accusation illustrated with pictures of „Terminator“ besides those from films like „Robot & Frank“ which is arguably one of the best fictional examination of robotics that hit the screen in recent years. At least, a little bit more differentiation would be desirable.

What’s more, even films like „Terminator“, „RoboCop“, „Colossus: The Forbin Project“, and many others convey messages that need to be taken seriously. Roboticists should not let themselves be distracted by the surface of these stories. Of course, the design of the robots as well as their abilities are usually highly speculative. But cinema is first of all an emotional experience. And these emotions of fear and inferiority in the face of robots carry a truth in itself: the experience of soldiers in World War I to be an insignificant part of a big war machine without a will on their own, forced to follow the merciless beat of the machines. It is no coincidence that the idea of machines taking over completely was developed in stage plays like „R.U.R.“ by Karel Çapek (which used the term „robot“ for the first time) or films like „L’uomo meccanico“ by André Deed only three years after the end of this terrible war. Even hundred years later, in films like Terminator you still can feel the echoes from the trenches of the Great War 1914-1918.

Another aspect of this dispute is the confrontation of different modes of thinking. Engineers and computer scientist are probably tuned to think in spreadsheets which is also the dominant mode of thinking in politics: At the end of the day there has to be a table with rows and columns and the right numbers in the table elements. The other, much older way to catch on reality is to think in stories. The first models ever constructed were the myths. It is a way to attain knowledge that is as valid as the mathematically based one. A profound debate on the ethics of robotics needs to accomodate both modes of approaching reality.

Finally, those who blame the media of exaggerating should take a critical look at themselves, too. As a journalist I get a lot of press releases by companies and research institutes that exaggerate their achievements and the abilities of their robots in the first place, claiming for instance robots were already helping rescue workers, while currently there are only research platforms. Unfortunately, reality often is not as simple as we wish it to be.

Wisdom Computing

The panelists at the session on Wisdom Computing (from left to right): Tateo Arimoto, Kazuo Iwano, Norihiro Agita, Nicole Dewandre, James Wildson
The panelists at the session on Wisdom Computing (from left to right): Tateo Arimoto, Kazuo Iwano, Norihiro Hagita, Nicole Dewandre, James Wilsdon

… is the title of a project of the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) which was presented at the recent science conference ESOF in Manchester, UK. Acknowledging that „information technology has a demonstrated potential to affect the direction and shape of society“, the wisdom computing initiative „has been looking towards formulating a philosophy to deal with this new environment and a policy for informing societal decisions“, as the project description explains. At the session in Manchester a written statement by Tomohiko Fujiyama, who could not attend in person, was distributed. I’d like to bring to your attention his final remarks, where Fujiyama first refers to the Japanese translation of „wisdom“ as chie: „We see that chie refers to recognition by integrating the whole not to analyse each part. We may also define chie as ‚interpretation‘ by integrating the whole. Accordingly there may be more than one correct way to characterize chie.“

Fujiyama then continues: „In other words, chie, the Japanese translation of ‚wisdom‘, contains a sense of ‚truth arrived at through various attempts at interpretation‘. It could be described as a word for the pursuit of explanations in which all elements are acceptable rather than the pursuit of absolute truth. If we look at it this way, we get the sense that ‚wisdom‘ refers to the setting of a subject and the listing of alternative solutions. Are we saying we want to create this wisdom between humans and machines? I feel I would like to hear more about whether we are attempting to give the job of creating all possible alternatives to machines and to have human beings and society make decisions. In 7th-century Japan, Prince Shotoku prepared what is known as the ’seventeen-article constitution‘. The first article says ‚harmony is to be valued‘. We can imagine that the thinking behind this was that there is greater value in eliminating conflict and maintaining harmony than in pursuing truth. Thinking that prioritizes harmony and agreement, thinking that stresses human pleasure, and thinking that makes happiness the supreme value do not tend to be thought of as science. In the West, science has evolved based on the concept of ‚classification and definition‘. On the other hand, Eastern wisdom puts emphasis on ‚ascertaining the whole in an instant‘. One hundred years ago, Daisetsu Suzuki presented Zen teachings that could not be expressed in writing to the world in literary form. I get the feeling that a new science is required, one that does not shut out such thinking but rather includes it. In this sense, I hope that Wisdom Computing will become something that, as a whole, contributes to comprehensive human happiness and in which machines, society, and people mutually influence each other.“

Elrob 2016: Robots try convoying

The autonomous vehicle of the team "Smart Military Vehicles" even cared for pedestrians (Foto: H.-A. Marsiske)
The autonomous vehicle of the team „Smart Military Vehicles“ even cared for pedestrians (Foto: H.-A. Marsiske)

On the first day of Elrob 2016 three teams sent their unmanned vehicles across country where one vehicle had to follow the leading vehicle autonomously. Two teams from Germany performed quite well, with small vehicles as well as with big trucks, while the Austrian team had some difficulties. That showed that the necessary reliability for a fieldable product might still be a few years away, but the technology is clearly on its way.

A more detailed report can be found here (in German).

Especially interesting on the second day was the reconnaissance of a building where a radioactive source had to be localized. Some teams tried to build up communication networks by distributing mesh nodes in the building. The dutch team TNO showed an interesting tele-presence approach by using a head-mounted display for controling the robot. Other teams let their robots drive autonomously. All in all, this scenario showed that the inspection of an unknown environment with robots is still an extremely difficult and time-consuming task, even with experienced operators.

Again, more on this (in German) here.

European Land Robot Trial starts in Austria

Today the ninth Elrob (European Land Robot Trial) starts at the training facility Tritolwerk of the Austrian Armed Forces at Eggendorf, Austria. Robots will have to fulfill different tasks like driving in a convoy as autonomously as possible, shuttle between two locations, doing reconnaissance, and search and rescue. It is a great opportunity to get an impression of the state of the art in military robotics and the main technical challenges. You will find reports of the event on heise online (in German language), English summaries will be given here.

Robotic Support for High Heels

The Johns Hopkins University recently published a press release on a project of five students who developed a prosthetic foot that allows walking in high heels up to 10 centimeters high.

What appears as an appealing approach, emphasizing how robotics technology can help to lead a sexy, pleasurable life has one drawback, though. When calculating the market potential for the prosthetic limb, the press release states: „Some 2,100 American women have lost a leg or foot in military service, and more women entering combat assignments, so the demand for a prosthesis that accommodates women’s fashion footwear is sure to grow.“

Building a business on the expectations of increasing military conflicts means fueling these conflicts. The prosthetic foot — which is a wonderful project on its own — does not need this kind of reasoning. It should not be guided by an inacceptable growth of demand, based on violence and aggression. With prosthetic limbs in general it must be the desire to serve a shrinking market instead. Our society should be prepared to help people with disabilites with the best of our technologies, even if there are only a few of them.

Forthcoming Conferences and Workshops

Raj Madhavan (Amrita University, India) is organizing a scientific workshop on Autonomous Technologies and their Societal Impact, June 20-21, 2016, in Ottawa, Canada, during the International Conference on Prognostics and Health Management at Carleton University. „First in the series“, he writes, „this Workshop is intended to bring together researchers, practitioners, and agencies involved in areas related to autonomous technologies and their impact on society. The proposed Workshop will allow for the identification of the type of autonomous systems that require further attention in terms of their effect in impacting humanity and discussion on their societal impact in both positive and negative ways. Emphasis will be placed not only on technology and public policy issues but also on environmental, cultural, structural, political, and socio-economic factors.“

November 1-3, 2016, the Eight International Conference on Social Robotics will meet in Kansas City, USA, bringing together „researchers and practitioners working on the interaction between humans and robots and on the integration of robots into our society. The theme of the 2016 conference is “Sociorobotics.” Robots will improve quality of human life through assistance, enabling for instance independent living or providing support in work-intensive, difficult and possibly complex situations. The conference aims to foster discussion on the development of computational models, robotic embodiments, and behavior that enable social robots to have an impact on the degree of personalized companionship with humans.“

Again it’s Raj Madhavan who invites to the first International Conference on Robotics and Automation for Humanitarian Applications (RAHA) at Amrita University in Kerala, India, on December 18-20, 2016. The declared aim of the conference is „to provide a platform for researchers, engineers, industry professionals, and humanitarian workers to share knowledge about technological tools, methodologies, and applied robotic and automation solutions for humanitarian applications“.

Support for a Ban on Killer Robots is growing

As the German NGO Facing Finance reports, the support for an international ban on autonomous weapon systems is growing. At the recent informal consultations at the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva 14 countries voted for such a prohibition, among them Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Pakistan, and Vatican State. Progress is slow, though. The expert meeting agreed to recommend to the forthcoming CCW Fifth Review Conference in December 2016 to establish a Group of Governmental Experts who should develop recommendations to the UN on a more formal level over the next two years – what seems like a quite long time considering the rapid progress of the technology. But it’s better than nothing.

Germany’s approach to deal with autonomous weapon systems on a national level has been criticized by several participants of the meeting. „There is no evidence that national assessment procedures ever prevented the development of any weapon system“, says Thomas Küchenmeister from Facing Finance. „Therefore we need a new, preventive convention to prohibit autonomous weapon systems, based on international law.“

Ban on Autonomous Weapons still possible

During this week the third Meeting of Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS) is taking place at the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva. Participants of the former meetings told me they expected a more open discussion, since delegates from USA and Great Britain seem to step back from their positions of delaying the proceedings and blocking any decisions against further development of autonomous weapon systems.

I summarized some of the advance statements of participating countries in this article (in German). Meanwhile more papers have been published on the Meeting’s homepage, so you can follow the discussions at least partly from remote.

Generally, there seems to be a growing awareness that artificial intelligence may become much bigger and more powerful than many people have expected so far and therefore deserves much more serious attention. The open question still is, whether this awareness grows fast enough and reaches the higher levels of decisions makers before the technological development has established facts that render any further discussion redundant. The window of opportunity is still open, but will likely close in less than five years.

It’s a Giant Leap

…not just a small step to put arms on drones. Because it is a step on a slippery slope that ignites an arms race that will inevitably lead to robots „firing at will“. The most promising way to avoid autonomous killer robots is to disarm them. I’ll discuss this position

April 27, 2016, 18:00 h
Institut für Friedensforschung und Sicherheitspolitik
an der Universität Hamburg

Beim Schlump 83, 20144 Hamburg, Raum 2/023 (2. Stock)

together with Marcel Dickow, Bernhard Koch and Christian Alwardt.

Koch and Alwardt will also report from the latest Meeting of Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS), scheduled for April 11–15 at the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva.

Here you find a more detailed announcement (in German).

Workshop on Societal Impacts of Autonomous Technologies

A full-day workshop will deal with ethical and social dimensions of autonomous technologies during the IEEE International Conference on Prognostics and Health Management (June 20-22, 2016, at Carlton University, Ottawa, Canada). The workshop is scheduled for Monday, June 20, followed by a panel discussion on June 21. Submission deadline for abstracts is April 25.

As the Call for Papers says: „First in the series, this Workshop is intended to bring together researchers, practitioners, and agencies involved in areas related to autonomous technologies and their impact on society. The proposed Workshop will allow for the identification of the type of autonomous systems that require further attention in terms of their effect in impacting humanity and discussion on their societal impact in both positive and negative ways. Emphasis will be placed not only on technology and public policy issues but also on environmental, cultural, structural, political, and socio-economic factors.“