Consider theoretical mathematicians: Their world of inquiry is an intellectual exploration so distant from our day-to-day world that major new discoveries, though compelling in long-term implication, usually have no immediate social consequences. But what if, one day, a young theoretical mathematician is struck with inspiration. He discovers a new cryptographic algorithm to unlock all encrypted passwords at light speed, and he announces the results proudly to his community. Does it matter if theoretical mathematicians have no ethics training in their degree programs today? It doesn't, really. And then suddenly, it might.
In the real world, sudden social consequences in abstract fields are rare. Set theory stays in the province of the mind; at the other extreme, the concrete world of civil engineering codifies ethical risk factors in bridge building. Of course there are boundary-crossing exceptions: nuclear fission, cloning, recombinant DNA, and others. But rarely does a field at the theoretical end stand up, gather its belongings and move wholesale across the field, all the way across the boundary, until it has reached the practically opposite extreme. But soon, robotics will do just this. This is not your father's robotics -- controlled, factory-installed and regulated. This is a newer, wilder, hybridized version. Take old-fashioned robotics, then mix in whole new levels of visual processing, machine dialogue, 3D printing, cloud computing, telepresence, data mining and machine learning at new, affordable, massive scales. What you get out of this brew is a new robotics that bridges the digital-physical divide, taking every winning strategy used for marketing, modeling and moneymaking on the Internet back into the good old physical world.
One deceptively simple implementation of robotic technology has already started to redefine the concept of warfighting altogether: robotic drones change the calculus of risk, and change the way in which our military, intelligence agencies and executive branch envision their global roles. And that is just one small example of how increasingly robotic decision-making and influence will change the next few decades.
There are many books and articles about a distant future in which robots save us -- or we save ourselves by uploading ourselves to robots -- or the robots take over and enslave us all. The Singularity has its strong adherents, and in the techno-utopian view of many engineers and scientists, invention is the Good that will make our world a paradise, if we just give innovation enough room to grow its garden. But I find this talk of a far future hurtful to our near future. We face a world in the next few decades where the applications of robotic technology in society will blossom. But this will be a spring full of mediocre robots with questionable intentions. We are going to get this Cambrian robo-explosion wrong for many, many years before we have a hope of getting it right.
This is the story that I try to tell with my new book, Robot Futures. We need to understand just what robo-innovation is coming in the near future, and more important yet we need to consider its ramification for society. Robot Futures interleaves fictional vignettes about ever more distant robot-human scenarios with nonfiction analysis that explains just what technology today portends each possible future. In the chapter, New Mediocracy, I argue that massive interactive data mining and computer vision will eventually remote-control the shopper, consumer and voter. Robot Smog argues that the robotics DIY revolution will have the unforeseen consequence of polluting our everyday world. Dehumanizing Robots proposes that our ever-increasing social interactions with a whole new species -- the social robot -- will change how we socialize with Homo sapiens as well. Attention Dilution Disorder takes robot telepresence to its natural conclusion. Brainspotting proposes an alternate possible future in which MEMS-style engineering enables us to harness the best possible vessel for the robots of the future: the human body. There is also a final chapter devoted to the proposition that community robotics just might be an antidote to all the above nightmares. In a companion blog (www.robotfutures.org), I have been tracking and commenting on news stories directly relating to the technology developments I predict in Robot Futures. Perhaps we can future-proof ourselves a little bit by actually considering just how we want robots and society to think about one-another.
Illah R. Nourbakhsh (www.illah.com) is Professor of Robotics, Director of the CREATE Lab and Head of the Robotics Master's Program at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute. He is author of Robot Futures and Introduction to Autonomous Mobile Robots. He was previously Lead of the Robotics Group at NASA/Ames Research Center.