Here we reach the end of our journey through “The Robotics Primer”. This final unit expands upon everything we have covered so far to look at how robots are currently being used in our society and how they might grow to be used in the near and distant future. Some time is also spent considering the implications of robotics in society from ethical and social impacts as well.
Table of Contents
- Reading – Chapter 22: Where to Next?
- Textbook Companion
Reading – Chapter 22: Where to Next?
In this last chapter numerous examples of robotics at work are given, with examples of robots at work and at play in our society. Robots have come a long way since the text was published, and I think it is important to note that the applications for robotics as well as the technology of robotics has grown greatly in the interim. Roomba’s are now established in many more households, and 3d printers have become a popular hobby that allow people to play with and build robotics. Robotic factories have been well established and are an integral part of the fabrication industry. But some of the most exciting developments in robotics have been the development and deployment of self-driving cars. There is also serious work being done with the concept of space-based robotic asteroid miners. Further, our technical capability in the realm of robotics is continuing to grow, with companies such as Boston Dynamics and Tesla creating and refining technologies that are able to move in ways similiar to biological creatures and which are capable of complex motion and tasks. The technology for robotics has grown, and our capacity has continued to grow and is likely to continue to grow. However, we are still grappling with the moral and ethical questions of robotics and what their use on our society, economies and culture may be. It seems though that while we are thinking about the bigger questions of robotics, as evidenced by their prevalence in media, we are likely to only reach conclusions and decisions after the technology has been integrated into society.
Food For Thought 22-1
While the potential for robots to help people is vast, some people believe that instead of creating technology that replaces human labor, we should focus on training people as providers of those services. With the exception of jobs that are inherently dangerous or undesirable, it is important to be able to justify robots in roles that could be filled by people, if such people were available. How do you think this should be justified? Are robots taking these roles away from people or are they filling otherwise unfulfilled roles? What if those roles are unfilled now, but once robots fill them, they could never again be filled by people? These are just some of the ethical and economic questions that have been posed. How would you answer them?
In truth I believe these questions are at their root an extension of the questions that we have about how our world economies should be structured. Is a capitalist, communist, socialist, democratic or monarchy a better society. These all seek to answer underlying questions about how we can best provide and care for people while maintaining our nation. We all want utopia, but we have different opinions on what that utopia might look like. To some the rise of robotics is the ushering in of a new golden age, while to others it is a sure sign of doom and despair. It has been established that change is hard, it requires new learning, new approaches and upsets the reliability of the current. Frankly, I view robots as a tool and a technology. Technology is the application of knowledge and understanding in the world. As we develop new understanding, new technologies follow, and these lead to changes. The rise of robotics in my view is an inevitable result of the technological revolution, which was the result of the industrial revolution and so on.
So then, we must now consider the question of whether it is appropriate to be creating technologies that might take the jobs of other people. Western society has consistently answered that question with “yes”. We desire greater efficiency, we need higher profits, and we want change. When building roads we use large machines to make the process faster and cheaper, while in other parts of the world they still use human labour for the entire process. When we farm, we automate and use bigger and bigger machines, that are essentially industrial robots. The driving force for our society is not what is good for people, but what is good for the bottom line. Robots don’t need to be continually paid or to be covered with benefits and health and pension plans. Yes their is maintenance, but the way western economies are built has already made the decision that robots are being integrated wherever and whenever they can. For example self-checkouts in grocery stores are now common, a single sales person can manage eight or more tills in this set up. While there are still cashiers and standard checkouts, we are moving away from that model. There are now stores where there is no cashier for handling transactions and purchases are recorded and charged based upon sensors throughout the store that can see when you have removed an item from the shelf.
So we are in a society that is obsessed with change and progress. We are in a society that is actively seeking to replace workers with robots that can do the same or a similiar jobs at a much lower cost. To me, I don’t actually see a solution in our current system. We either need to bring in regulation to limit such effects, which would put us at a huge disadvantage when competing or trading internationally, or we need to rethink fundamentals of how our society is structured.
Some people have dreamt of a society where robots handle the tasks of work, and care for all the needs economically of the people that live there. If this were the case, they argue that everyone would be cared for and would have comfort and security. However, I think it is more likely that the robots would be owned by a few powerful people which would continue to lead to the widening of the power gap and which could then strip people of their economic, and political power leading to even further inequality.
I don’t know what the solution is, I don’t know how we should best care for the people in our societies. I do know that people should have volition, freedom, security and agency however. Ideally, people would be able to work if they want to work and should be able to find a job that appeals to them if they want it. All people should be cared for and should have the security, comfort and stability that contribute to a meaningful and happy life though. I know that robots are part of our future, but they are a tool, and we still have to decide what future we want. If we don’t, others will shape it for us.
Food For Thought 22-2
Some Philosophers have argued that once robots become sufficiently intelligent and self-aware, they will be so much like people that it will be unethical to have them working for us, as it will create a race of slaves. What do you think about that?
I think that is both correct and incorrect at the same time. I do believe that a sufficiently intelligent entity, with emotion, intuition and creation will need to be dealt with as an equal and treated with respect. However, I expect that the vast majority of robotics, will continue to be tools and machines. Their purpose for existing has been to perform some task and I expect that they will continue to do so. I would then view the vast majority of robotics as tools, created and intended for a given task. On the other hand, truly intelligent machines, with true Artificial Intelligence, are more than just tools. They would be full personalities with wants, desires and needs. As such they would need to be treated with respect and care, invited to be partners in our endeavors.
In the moodle page for this unit, after the further readings, there are some notes about the Project and Final Exam, following this there is a bit of a breakdown of the textbook companion workbook: http://sourceforge.net/apps/mediawiki/roboticsprimer/index.php?title=Main_Page.
It appears that this is mostly just a review highlighting parts of the workbook that should be read over for a further understanding of the material. Some of the sections are highlighted as being potentially adaptable to our current robotics kit. There is however no indication that these need to be included here. My understanding is that this is to provide review of the exercises that were requested and performed throughout the course. I will read over these sections in preparation for the Final exam, though I do not plan to add additional exercises or follow up posts for the workbook.
This has been an interesting course, and has been a fun introduction to many topics related to robotics. It feels like a starting point from which I would be interested in further courses and projects. I am very excited to begin working on my final project and have spent a great deal of time thinking and preparing for my task. I hope to have another post soon with a breakdown on what I am doing and a good guide on the process so that I can explain what I have done and how I have handled the many problems I am sure will arise along the way.
December 15th, 2021
Feature Image: Photo by Alex Knight from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/high-angle-photo-of-robot-2599244/