In honor of Halloween and Hurricane Sandy (relevance to be explained), today I’m going to indulge in one of my favorite topics: robots.
When I think of robots, I like to picture the cartoon and movie ones, appropriate for a day like October 31 in their weird hybrid of human and inhuman characteristics. Such hybrids force us to think about the social and ethical influences of technology, human hubris and some of the simultaneously most exciting and terrifying aspects of our future (so, you know, some casual Wednesday afternoon-type thinking). And they can be extremely useful tools in psychology and neuroscience, in that we can use robotic technology to refine and apply our understanding of the inner-workings of our own minds (check out Brian Scassellati’s robotics work at Yale with implications for human social interaction).
But robots seem to be catching a bad rep these days, since they are often brought up in the context of drones: unmanned aerial vehicles used by the U.S. military in overseas combat and intelligence gathering. Their use is supported by both President Obama and Mitt Romney, and controversy swirls around the civilian casualties they can cause as well as possible security holes in the technology. These kinds of problems probably say far more about the people deploying these vehicles than the vehicles themselves. Nonetheless, it’s worth considering the ongoing but less publicized effort to create humanitarian roles for robotic technology. Small robots are actually being used to survey the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, and NASA is working on a set of drones for tracking hurricanes (see the original post on this at robots.net). Texas A&M University has even got an entire research program looking to expand robot-assisted search and rescue operations, cleverly entitled “Robotics Without Borders.” Perhaps most startling, though, is that you can purchase one of the drones being used in Vernon, CT to record post-Sandy destruction to the area. Paris-based manufacturer Parrot markets their drone as a “flying video game,” and it’s basically a glorified flying camera with a WiFi system allowing you to control it from your smartphone or tablet. Then again: it’s a flying camera that you can control with your smartphone or tablet. If you think about it, that’s not exactly a trivial gadget.
These devices are a long way from the walking, talking humanoids sci-fi dreams are made of. But the technology is still pretty spectacular, and their presence just seems to be growing – meaning we’re long overdue for open conversations on the ways robot technology can be safely and ethically incorporated into our lives. For tonight, it might be enough to pop in Blade Runner. But it is something to keep in (your flesh-and-blood, non silicon-based) mind.
*An update: For a more extensive look at the dangers posed by robot soldiers, check out this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Jonathan Moreno, CNS faculty member, David and Lyn Silfen University Professor of Ethics at Penn and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.