RobotRepublic — A recent report digging into the dark side of robots and AIs over the next five to 10 years is frightening, sure.

But when we outline such outsized fears as the ones that now surround any discussion about the coming robotics and AI age, shouldn’t we just define exactly what we mean by the very word, robotics?

 The Malicious Use of AI: Forecasting, Prevention, and Mitigation, 26 roboticists who participated in a University of Oxford research ominously outline the myriad of ways bad actors might hack robots and use them and their built-in artificial intelligence against us.

For instance, it looks at such robot innovations as the SweepBot cleaning robot and imagines how someone might modify it with a bomb that’s programmed to detonate, say, after it identifies an elected official or minister by facial recognition.

Terrifying, sure. But what makes the idea of stuffing a robot with auto-detonating explosives so much scarier than hiding a bomb in a regular old canister vacuum cleaner?

Which makes you think: Why are we are so concerned with robot tech, as opposed to other types of tech?

What makes a robot so much scarier than, say, anything else made of silicon and electrons? No one ever asks this. But it’s an important question.

What is a robot, anyway?

Important as it is, the answer the ‘what is a robot’ question isn’t all that simple.

Movies and sci fi books, of course, say it is, but that’s Hollywood.  It thrives on futuristic images of  humanlike machines that will match or even surpass humans in strength, intelligence, even wisdom. It thrives on drama, which is what you pretty much want — from fiction.

The reality about robots in the near to mid future, though, isn’t anything like that.

Wall-e what is a robot cathrine Haase robotrepublic aarhus ginaReal life robots have very little in common with robots depicted in SFI or shown in movies. In real life, there are no robots like Robocop. There’s no Frankenstein. There’s not even a cute but existentially challenged Wall-E.  Sure, robot designers sometimes try to dress their robotic creations up to look like the ones encountered in fiction.

Don’t be fooled. That’s sideshow stuff. It isn’t any charming, human-life quality that makes these or any other robots special.

On the other hand, nor are robots reducible to any other kind of technology. You can’t just say they are motherboards with more moving parts, obviously.

The ISO standards proposed by the robot designers themselves define robots in very mechanical terms.

Now, ISO standards are merely guidelines to create robots and robotic devices operating as industrial and non-industrial service robots. According to the letter of the standard, the most basic technical definition of a robot in these standards are:

“A robot is an actuated mechanism programmable in two or more axes with a degree of autonomy, moving within its environment, to perform intended tasks. Autonomy in this context means the ability to perform intended tasks based on current state and sensing, without human intervention.”

And, yes, I realize that paragraph 2.28 of that same ISO standard defines smart robots as:

“a robot capable of performing tasks by sensing its environment and/or interacting with external sources and adapting its behaviour. As examples, the standard gives an industrial robot with a vision sensor for picking up and positioning an object, mobile robots with collision avoidance and legged robots walking over uneven terrain,” (Nevejans 2016, 10).

But these technical definitions say so little.

For one thing, they don’t capture exactly why it is that we need to pay special attention to robotic technologies, as opposed to other ones. So let’s look at that now.

Who’s the robot?

Lots of theorists and various other tech commentators over the years have tried to clearly distinguish a robot from, say, a phone, a camera, a computer or some high end Samsung refrigerator.

It’s not just a silly thought exercise. Noticing — and noting — what we are afraid of when we say we are afraid of robotics, for instance, really requires knowing exactly the shape of what scares you.

Precious few critics, though, ever bother to precisely define what we can understand from the general term robot.

So here are six attributes I came up with to clarify what make robots a particular kind of technology and why robots can be simultaneously helpful and potentially malign.

  1. Robots are first of all platform machines. They are not alive, nor human like. They are however a very special technology in that they draw on and combine many other existing technologies and thereby create a new entity [Gina: here I envision a drawing of a robot – see attachment – that show a robot with arrows to an algorithm, a computer, helicopter rotor blades used in drones, software chip, a camera, a sensor, a wire, a motherboard, a gramophone, motors, a machine arm or lever, a microphone caterpillar wheels etc). It is this combination which makes the robot a very particular machine.
  2. All robots run on an energy source (electricity, batteries etc.) that can run out and needs reloading – just at the other machines the robots are encompassing like computers, mobiles and cameras. A robot combe all kinds of technology is still just as dependent on plug as any other technology taken individually!
  3. Contrary to levers and vacuum cleaners these robots not only combine and connect different kinds of technologies into one entity – this entity can in some cases in itself both use tools (like vacuum cleaners) or make new tools.
  4. Robots used to be caged in factories like automobile factories but this was before they got more mobile bodies and AI. Now They increasingly move around among people.
  5. That more and more technology, including AI software, is built into and connected in a robotic body will create a super machine with multiple purposes. It becomes more than the sum of the parts because the individual technologies not only relate to each other but increasingly to a surrounding world including other robots. [Gina: illustrations for the below sector can be all types of existing robots including swarm robots and drones]
  6. When these advanced entities combine all types of technologies (cameras, software for face recognition, microphones, recorders for voice recognition, levers, or rotor blades, engines, sensors etc) and cover all of this in a shell of human like features these machines appear as a kind of ‘companions’ (like Jibo or Hanson Robotics’ Sophia). Where we do not expect a vacuum cleaner to be a companion, a robot in a humanlike shell may appear as a trustworthy friend that is just a helpful cleaning companion.

It is these 6 features that make robots a special kind of technology in the real life of people.  This said, all robots do not always combine all of the above technologies. We would still call a robot a robot if it did not have inbuilt microphones for instance but only made use of the computers AI in a metal body where the limbs were controlled by software programs and maybe sensors to lift heavy stuff.

The cleaning robot SweepBot envisioned by the Oxford group would, in order to function as a trust worthy cleaning companion, nevertheless need to combine most of the features listed above in a way that made them all work in tandem: sensors, camera, microphone, motor, levers, some kind of ‘feet’ and ‘arms’ etc.

The problem with real life robots is that while all of these technologies function smoothly when taken individually they tend to malfunction when they are combined. The combined robotic machine is nowhere near as agile or intelligent as a human – and will not be in the timeframe stipulated by the Oxford group.

It would be intelligent in the way our computers are intelligent. It would ‘see’ as our cameras ‘see’ and hear as a microphone hears and record as our already well-known recorders record. SweepBot could, even when running on the most advanced AI and machine learning, only run on expected outputs following inputs.

The real danger of Sweepbot may not be that it become a trustworthy cleaner that can release a bomb in the face of a minister. The real danger may be in how robots, like Sweepbot, are transforming the lives of humans – because they are just imperfect machines that are not, and never will be, like humans.

When robots left their industrial cages they also began to put new demands on human environments to adjust to the robots. As machines they are not as flexible as the humans in the environments we built for ourselves. Sweepbot will, as real-life cleaning robots like Aeolus, only work if both humans and environments are robot friendly i.e. build to accommodate its machinery and if it is loaded and all its parts work seamlessly, which is not always the case

The real danger is not so much that a robot like SweepBot closes in with a bomb in its belly and face-recognize some official and detonate on that recognition. Rather, the danger is inextricably wound up in a gathering future, one where all environments are adjusted to let machines move and communicate via increasingly complex and uncontrollable combinations of all kinds of technologies and software algorithms.

In that future, our fictional minister winds up in quite a different scenario than that envisioned by the Oxford group.

She may not be killed because just like computers break down from time to time the SweepBot may suddenly run out of power or it may trip over an unexpected wire next to a kindergarten, and thus release the bomb in the wrong place.

If we want to assess what robots really are like we can begin assessing the many individual devices that already influence our daily lives in ways that are both smart and not very smart. It is for instance very smart that you no longer need the long line of mostly women spending all day redirecting telephone calls, but not very smart when you spend hours getting through to a real person because the automated options in the system does not respond to your actual needs.

All the good and bad sides of technology will be reinforced when robots combine many technologies in one entity – and naturally also the risk of break downs and malfunctioning are increased the more technologies are combined.

This is what robots really are.

Helpful machines and malicious machines. Like the cameras and computers robots can be used for different purposes but the effect of malfunction keeps growing the more technologies we place in the robot’s body. That’s the danger and the challenge that we all need to prepare for now.

For RobotRepublic in Copenhagen, I’m Cathrine Hasse.

Image credits: Disney Pixar’s Wall-E U-Command Remote Control Robot, All Rights Reserved.