Robots contribute to society, despite sci-fi stereotype

Residing in one of the more bizarre neighborhoods of the Internet is the webpage of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, whose purpose is, according to Catherine Rampell of The New York Times, to “research a ‘Terminator’-like scenario in which supercomputers rise up and destroy their human overlords.” How far exactly are we from such a scenario? Last week, according to the BBC, “‘Terminator’ self-assembling cube robots” have been revealed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But don’t freak out just yet. In the “Terminator” films, an android is made of a certain material that can reassemble itself, assuming different shapes when in liquid state. What the researchers at MIT made, although impressive, is merely a conceptual project. It is a set of cubes that can configure themselves in different patterns, using internal flywheels for movement and magnets for connection. What it does best is provide further evidence for how far reality and fiction are in robotics.

Although robots do indeed pose an economic challenge, there is too much discourse about the threat of intelligent machines and not enough work on actually creating them. Of course robots are threatening, but so are automobiles, gunpowder and uranium. There are many examples of the use of technology for destructive purposes and of the struggle to keep them away from the hands of unprepared individuals. But if one looks at history without cynical bias, one can’t help noticing how much it has improved our overall quality of life.

Here’s a short list of robots that would be welcome and that are far from becoming reality. 1.) Robotic Housekeeper. Its only threat would be perhaps giving too much leisure time for the owners to engage in menial tasks. 2.) Robotic Firefighter. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, in 2012, there were 83 on-duty fatalities in the country. It would be nice if dangerous rescuing missions were performed by an army of robots. 3.) Mechanic. 4.) Lawn mower. 5.) Farmer. 6.) Cab driver. 7.) Personal dance instructor.

The probability of robots turning against humans is microscopically small — now and for many decades to come. Any person who ever tried to contribute to the field of artificial intelligence will confirm this. Science fiction writers can wonder about it, but the issue is far from critical. As for the economic threat of job loss, it is real, but only because we live with such rudimentary technology that so many human individuals still have to make a living doing repetitive and boring tasks. These are precisely the things robots are very competent at and what they should actually be doing.

Intelligent robots should be welcomed in any future we envision for ourselves. And criticism is not only premature, it’s damaging. It focuses unnecessary attention on unrealistic downsides, thus impeding a technologically advanced and desirable future.



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