What No One Will Tell You About Robots

What No One Will Tell You About Robots

By Daniel Malloy


Because the robots are here, like it or not.

By Daniel Malloy

Human fascination with robots has long been fused with fear. The first widespread use of the term came a century ago in a Czech play about robots manufactured to serve and work for people. The catch? The bots turn on their masters.

That plot has played out in fiction countless times since. Meanwhile, the real world has created ever more advanced versions of mechanical servants. Today’s artificial intelligence (AI) is more sophisticated than anyone could have imagined decades ago, and it’s already influencing our lives in incredible ways — even if the robot masses have not (yet) revolted. Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently said AI is “more profound than fire or electricity” in its impact on humanity.

But like fire, AI can burn us too. Today’s Sunday magazine takes stock of where we are, where the technology is headed and the pitfalls that lie ahead with AI. There is much to celebrate, loads to fear and even more to question about a future in which machines join humans in striving for a better world.

Autonomous Robot Doing Domestic Cleaning Chores In Household Bathroom

the promise

Friends With Benefits. Imagine robots did all the cooking, cleaning and dog-walking around your house. They ferry you around town, care for a sick parent, teach kindergarten to your child, deliver packages, perform your favorite hit songs … and have sex with you. Guess what? Many of those kinds of robots are already available, and will only get better at human-like tasks in the coming years.

What About My Job? We should not necessarily be thinking of AI and robotic technology as an adversary in the workplace. For manual labor, think wearable exoskeletons that can improve efficiency and reduce injury. For knowledge work, it can be a powerful assistant that helps us do our jobs better, one that reduces our own cognitive load and frees us to work on higher-order tasks and more interesting and creative things. Plus, some jobs that we don’t think of being that creative today, like project manager, could get a major … human … makeover. The project managers of the future will have to make sophisticated decisions to get the best out of both humans and machines. Hear more on OZY’s Future of X podcast.

Product Enhancement. Transhumanists — “cyborg” is so passé — explore the symbiosis of man and machine, going so far as to upgrade parts of their bodies. Think supercharged ears or a bionic arm to replace an amputated one. And then there’s professional mad genius Elon Musk, who wants to fuse human brains with computers to create super-intelligent beings, and has dedicated his company Neuralink to the task. But at what point do we cease being human? We’re a long way from drawing that line.

When Do I Get My Self-Driving Car? In many areas, AI has not yet lived up to the hype. Despite overly optimistic predictions, fully autonomous cars are still only in use in certain trial programs. It often can exacerbate racial bias. And the technology has not yet made a dent in complex fields such as accounting, law, engineering and health care. These disappointments are breeding the technology’s many doubters. Read more on OZY.

COVID-Accelerated. Some AI trends are getting a boost amid the pandemic and economic turbulence. Fast food chain White Castle is hiring Flippy, a burger-flipping robot, later this year to reduce human contact with the food. AI is being pressed into service to identify the next pandemic. But the crisis has also exposed AI’s limits: When our behavior went haywire in response to the virus, machine-learning systems for inventory management, streaming recommendations and other areas couldn’t keep up


the secrets

Arms Race. By 2030, a third of the combat capacity of Russia is expected to be driven by AI — including AI-guided missiles with the ability to change their target mid-flight. Israel has adopted a targeting network to aid the Israel Defense Forces in remotely patrolling the many contentious regions under their control. The U.S. is building a robotic submarine system that will detect underwater mines and other anti-submarine enemy action. But it’s China that appears to be one robotic step ahead, with its massive domestic surveillance program and military drones that can ferry passengers. Read more on OZY https://www.ozy.com/the-new-and-the-next/which-military-has-the-edge-in-the-a-i-arms-race/358014/

Global Gears. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has received a prototype, developed by Boeing Australia, of a jet-powered drone to flank and protect its manned combat aircraft. Brazil and India have set up panels for their militaries to work with cutting-edge labs on developing AI. The U.K.’s Ministry of Defence has launched its own AI lab, as has the South Korean army, which has also used a sentry robot in the demilitarized zone along the border with North Korea.

Quiz: Which country has touted its work on mini-robots that can slide under enemy tanks? The answer is at the bottom of this story.

Do Killer Robots Dream? There are corners of the internet that scream about bloodthirsty bots already enacting takeovers. But an increasing number of serious people are expressing concern about malicious AI. From the U.S. and other major militaries refusing to sign a treaty against fully autonomous weapons to the time Facebook had to shut down its chatbots because they created their own language, runaway robots should concern us all. Read more on OZY.


love and robots

Sins of the Flesh. As with many technological advances, the sex industry is on it. Functional sex robots are hitting the market (if you can afford to pay up to $10,000), but experts are raising the alarm about moral questions, with reports that the bots can be programmed to reenact a rape scenario or resemble children. But would child sex dolls actually prevent pedophilia?

You Tell Us. Would you ever have sex with a robot? If not, why not? If so, whom would you design your robot to resemble? Take our Twitter poll.

L Is for the Way You Look at Me. These robotic relationships may well become about more than sex. Many experts believe that humans will fall in love with robot companions as they advance, in part because our brains are not equipped to parse those emotions. In fact, a growing number of people identify as “digisexuals” — attracted to androids.

Algorithmic Soul Mate. AI is being put to use to make real-life connections as well. One service called AIMM promises to both find you a mate and then coach you through the courting process, with all sorts of questionable, at times sexist assumptions that remind us that AI is only as good as the people creating it. Read more on OZY.


your health

Incredible Shrinking Surgeon. Robot-assisted surgery is becoming more widespread and affordable by the day. Eager for the next big leap? Watch out for Boston-based Vicarious Surgical, which recently won recognition from the Food and Drug Administration as a breakthrough device for using virtual reality and tiny robots to perform surgeries inside your body — guided by the surgeon on the outside. Read more about robot-assisted surgery on OZY.

Diagnostic Test. Reports of the demise of the radiologist were greatly exaggerated, but AI is getting better at diagnosis. Google recently announced that its AI system often — but not always — matches or outperforms humans in diagnosing breast cancer. And machine diagnosis is another trend that’s seeing a pandemic surge, as the need to swiftly identify coronavirus outbreaks is a matter of life and death.

Nursing Aide. Robots are already popping up at hospitals, performing tasks like delivering medication. And their capabilities are starting to get more complex, such as feeding patients who cannot feed themselves. It’s just another example of how baby boomers — not millennials — are the target demographic for the next era of AI. Read more on OZY.

The Robot Is In. With chatbots getting more advanced, AI is increasingly becoming more involved in your mental health. Apps like Youper can engage with you on a human level with a friendly chat — anytime, anywhere — that can provide a critical mental lift. Read more on OZY.

Would you rather spill your guts to a bot or a real-life therapist? Tag us on Instagram and let us know. 


sticky questions

Robot Prejudice. It may be easier than we thought for autonomous machines to develop one of humanity’s less attractive features: prejudice. Why? New research using computational simulation models suggests that prejudice requires only limited intelligence and cognitive ability to develop and spread in populations of artificially intelligent machines. Are we consigned to a future of robot Archie Bunkers? What happens if the “outsiders” they’re biased against turn out to be us? Read more on OZY.

In Living Color. AI has a well-documented race problem: It struggles to recognize Black faces, among myriad other problems stemming from the fact that there are too few Black faces in the industry itself. Given the newfound enthusiasm for people investing in historically Black colleges and universities in the wake of racial justice protests, how about a woke Silicon Valley type offers up $50 million or so to seed AI research and development at Howard University to help offer balance.

All Rise for Chief Justice Robot! “Judges are like umpires,” U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts declared at his 2005 confirmation hearings. But if being an appellate judge is really just a matter of calling balls and strikes, then isn’t that a job that could be performed more thoroughly and precisely by a computer, and without political or personal bias, age or infirmity, or ugly confirmation battles? If justice is blind, does it still need to have eyes? Read more on OZY.

AI for the Defense. Overworked and underfunded public defenders in the U.S. have enormous caseloads, which makes competent legal representation difficult. But thanks to initiatives like the Tubman Project, AI is being deployed to help public defenders keep up by doing things like auto-filling forms and reviewing hours of police body-camera footage. How long before AI is also helping negotiate plea deals and more?

Electoral Disruption. Upstart political candidates are turning to AI tools to take on electoral machines — and they’re winning. Companies on the left and right are using advanced tech to streamline fundraising and better scale targeted ads, or uncover granular details about how messaging campaigns can best influence voters based on their foundational beliefs. Can a bot make you change your vote? Read more on OZY.

Reining Them In. Part of the problem is that AI powers can’t agree on the rules of the road. Last month, Chinese search giant Baidu left the Partnership on AI, an American-led consortium of tech companies, nonprofits, research groups and more, designed to develop ethical guidelines around AI. Baidu was the group’s only Chinese member and its departure comes amid a worsening relationship with the U.S. For now, AI governance remains inconsistent across and even within countries: California, for example, has banned facial recognition technology for local law enforcement, while it’s commonplace in Florida.

Quiz Answer: Iran released images in October of miniature robots that can slide under enemy tanks.