Averting the Robot Uprising

by Jorge Cham
Comic by Jorge Cham, Ph.D Comics
Photo: Robotics professor Sebastian Thrun protects an entire wing of Willow Garage with a chess piece.

There's been some recent discussion on robo-ethics, including this Wired article as well as this front-page New York Times article. We've noticed that there is a Hollywood-inspired undercurrent of fear, particularly one of a robot uprising, that greets each new step forward in robotics, such as when we programed our PR2 robot to plug itself in. To help allay those fears, we've put together our own guide on How to Defeat a PR2 Uprising.

  1. Lay 2x4s across the ground. The PR2 is highly maneuverable on inclines up to 5 degrees, but it cannot drive over sharp obstacles like a 2x4. The PR2 can also be turned away by anything that's at least 3cm tall.
  2. Always keep a supply of liquid nearby to toss on any advancing robot. We have Naked and Odwalla fruit juice fridges in a central location and restock them frequently.
  3. Stairs are the enemy of cows, Daleks, and wheeled robots.
  4. Black power outlets are like Ninjas: invisible to the PR2.
  5. Use round door knobs. The PR2 can only enter homes that are ADA-compliant.

For a more comprehensive guide, please refer to Daniel Wilson's, "How to Survive a Robot Uprising."

More seriously, we are interested in the discussion on robot ethics and safety. We are more concerned about people commanding robots to do harm than robots doing harm on their own. How can we design hardware systems to be safer around people? How can we use software to enhance the safety of the hardware systems?

There is a longer-term discussion about what happens if people ever figure out how to replicate human intelligence in a machine. For more on the distinction between the machine intelligence that run robots like PR2 and human intelligence, check out Helen Greiner’s recent article, "Who Needs Humanoids?"


My Roomba

Should I be worried when I wake up and my Roomba is next to me, staring and judging?

Your Roomba

Only when they give it sensors equivalent to eyes and not just a panel that it has to strike every wall with before it can figure out that it can't go there.