Illah Nourbakhsh studies and designs robots for a living. But if you expect his new book, Robot Futures, to depict a care-free Tomorrowland of electronic butlers and automated fun, look elsewhere. The lively and accessible Robot Futures ($24.95, MIT Press) warns of a society warped by our relationships with a new "species" that knows more about us than we know about it ... and whose representatives are often owned by someone profiting at our expense.
The problem, says Nourbakhsh, is that we're racing into our Robot Future without considering the social, moral and legal implications. "We're just stabbing blindly into it," he says.
Take Amazon's recent announcement that it's testing drone delivery aircraft. Where many see the next logical step in consumer satisfaction, Nourbakhsh perceives fresh tidings of "robot smog": a condition where self-contained robots will be so ubiquitous — as toys, security devices, driverless cars — that they'll be everything from nuisance to menace.
Nourbakhsh, a genial fellow who lives with his wife and two kids in Squirrel Hill, is a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. His career was launched partly by his adolescent enthusiasm for Star Wars androids C-3PO and R2-D2. Today, Nourbakhsh heads CMU's robotics masters program and is widely enough known to have spoken about Robot Futures in Moscow.
Nourbakhsh stands out among roboticists by refusing to work on projects funded by the Department of Defense, a huge backer of robot research; he's a member of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. And he directs CMU's Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment lab, which explores empowering individuals and communities with technology.
The robots that worry him aren't CREATE projects like water-monitoring devices, or the robot-enabled photography initiative known as GigaPan. In fact, problematic robots are already more widespread, and insidious, than most people realize. Online, bots track our every cyber-move and then custom-post ads accordingly. Camera systems in video billboards track our behavior, too, learning what promotional techniques entice us most. "They're getting better and better at observing us," says Nourbakhsh. "They can sell anybody anything."
"What if we become so manipulable ... [that] we're the robots?" he asks.
We are also exploited as free online labor. Nourbakhsh recounts how Google chose its particular shade of blue by tracking the purchasing behavior of "hundreds of millions" of online users exposed to different hues. "We become mice in a grand experiment," he says. "We're not really the consumer any more. We're the producer of the value."
Each chapter of Robot Futures begins with a fictional scenario, depicting everything from a near-future of robot smog to increasingly speculative (if technologically plausible) depictions of people using Google Glass-type devices to "be" in multiple places at once, and of people temporarily transferring their consciousnesses into other human (or animal) bodies.
Nourbakhsh explores questions few have asked about such technology — and not just how we'll cope with increased displacement of human laborers by worker bots. How, for instance, will we interact with robots who might "know" everything about us at a glance, via online databases? How will we tell whether a given robot is autonomous or guided by a person, or some combination thereof? Who's responsible if a partially autonomous robot harms someone? What if it's fully autonomous? And if we increasingly delegate mundane tasks to virtual assistants (descendants of today's smartphones), and they summon us for help only "as needed," do we become the robots, disengaged from our own lives (a condition Nourbakhsh calls "attention dilution disorder")?
Robots are already widely used by the U.S. military. What if the human-controlled drones (which already kill innocents) could independently make kill/no-kill decisions? "This may be a line we should never cross," Nourbakhsh argues.
His most fundamental concern is dehumanization. As robots become "human," will we treat robots more like people — or people as disrespectfully as we might treat robots?
He also criticizes the popular fixation on what famed inventor and author Ray Kurzweil calls "the singularity" — the union of human and machine minds. Nourbakhsh says that such technology, if it's possible, is much further in the future than many believe. Meanwhile, it's a big distraction: "We don't get that the challenges we face are much more clear and present."
Nourbakhsh says robots can benefit society — if more people understand how they work, and if the technology is not controlled only by corporations and government. That would require funding for communities and individuals to develop robots for more things like his CREATE lab does, such as environmental testing.
Once, Nourbakhsh told a colleague his concerns about robots, and the colleague said, "You hate technology. You should leave this field."
But "that's missing the point," says Nourbakhsh. The technology itself is neither good nor bad. "The point I'm making is that we aren't having discourse as a society."