On the Robot Beat #7: President Obama sets back human-robot relations

On the Robot Beat #7: President Obama sets back human-robot relations

robot is something created by humans (directly or indirectly) that performs tasks (autonomously or not) done by humans (or, more broadly, by other animals…a robot dog, for example, would perform work done by living dogs, including providing companionship). 

The word may conjure up an image of a mechanical man, perhaps clunky and made of metal. The way we use the term at The Measured Circle, it would include software performing human tasks, and non-anthropomorphic devices like an answering machine or a calculator.

On the Robot Beat presents news about our creations that are, even in small ways, replacing us.

Note: in this unusual On the Robot Beat entry, we are going to focus on one story…because we think it is that important.

In the next ten years, there may be a major barrier to robots improving our lives…bringing new freedom to the visually impaired, helping the elderly live independently at home, savings lives when disaster strikes.

That barrier isn’t the technology. Robots will be smart enough, strong enough, skillful enough, and careful enough.

It really comes down to one thing:


Let’s take one example: robot cars.

We’re not going to use term “driverless cars”, because that’s simply wrong. The cars will have drivers: it’s just that the drivers won’t be human beings.

There is no question that robot-driven cars would be far safer than human-driven ones. When I was talking to a group of people about them, one of my listeners said, “What happens if a three-year old runs out in front of the car?” I responded that I would much rather have a car trying to avoid that kid than a person. The car simply knows that it has to avoid the collision…while you could give a car object recognition that would let it realize it was a human child at stake, that’s not necessary. Whether a kid or a rolling garbage can, the car will take the best possible steps to avoid the crash.

A human, on the other hand, is likely to panic. In that situation, they might step on the gas instead of the brake. They  might simply freeze up and do nothing at all. They might wildly twist the wheel, crossing over into oncoming traffic.

Might the car fail? Sure. Is the person more likely to fail? Undoubtedly.

Since the cars can drive so much more safely, they can drive faster and closer. We already know that

V2V systems

(Vehicle To Vehicle) are going to let cars communicate directly with each other. One car won’t get made because another one “cut them off”. They’ll know what the other car is going to do before it does it, and adjust.

Right now, though, there are engineers and marketers trying to figure out how to get people to accept the robot-driven cars…and how those cars can perform while the roads are “mixed use” (some cars driven by humans, others by robots).

The simple answer?

They’ll probably have to dumb down the cars. They’ll have to drive below their capability, so they don’t scare people…and so people will like them.

Let’s be honest: would you be afraid if a robot-driven car was driving a foot behind you on the freeway? Probably…because you couldn’t trust a human driver to do the same thing.

To paraphrase, FDR: “We have nothing to fear from robots but the fear of robots itself.”

Right away, I’m sure some of you are protesting, thinking of how robot warriors are going to make the world a less safe place.

As I’ve written about before, one main purpose of using robots on the battlefield is to decrease death and injury by having the robot decide when not to kill someone.

A land mine doesn’t care who steps on it: a cat, a dog, or that same three-year old child from our story above.

A “smart land mine” wouldn’t decide to explode when a “stupid land mine” wouldn’t: it’s that it would decide not to explode when it recognized a friend or a non-threat.

Let’s be very clear: we at The Measured Circle do not think that fear of robots is unreasonable. Fear of the unknown makes sense, from an evolutionary standpoint. Send a robot into a chicken coop, and the birds will scatter…as they should.

Humans, though, can overcome our natural fears, by using our more rational selves.

That’s not an easy process, though, and we may need help.

We may need to see our leaders, well, leading us so we can model that behavior.

That’s why we were so disappointed with something President Obama said recently.

The President was in Japan, and met with some robots, including Honda’s ASIMO.

As reported in this

Washington Post story by Juliet Eilperin

(and we’ve seen the clip), the President said:

“I have to say that the robots were a little scary, they were too lifelike,” Obama declared. “They were amazing.”


That’s right: this President, who has been called our “Geek-in-Chief” (having cited Star Trek as an influence, and being a reported collector of comics), told the world that robots were scary.

That was one of the most counter-productive things that the President could have said.

It sounds as though President Obama thought they were scary because they were too much like us (and other life forms). We are going to want some robots to look like us, even if many will work better if they don’t.

That’s why you can’t have Rosie from the Jetsons in your house, folding your laundry.

Oh, not just because of President Obama, of course…the fear goes back much before that. It’s in part because of many influential people frightening the public about robots.

The fear is a big drag on progress…and our leaders should be striving to make us less fearful about robots, not more so.

We are going to increasingly live with robots. Whether they are on your phone reminding you when it is time to leave for an appointment, getting your packages ready for delivery, or driving a blind person to the corner store, there isn’t a choice about that.

We can choose how we feel about it. Geeks like me? Not a problem…we want more robots now. The average person? They are going to need help adjusting to the future, or we risk leaving them behind because they are slow to join us.

We need our leaders and other role models to make the future inclusive, and that means reducing fear…not adding to it.

So, Mr. President, next time you meet a robot, don’t let the unfamiliarity scare you: embrace it, share your excitement, and lead the world to a better future.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle.



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