A recent New York Times article warned of the future dangers robots could pose to the humans who work alongside them. The article cited the 33 deaths robots caused in the industrial setting over the past 30 years. While any death is unfortunate, let’s put that number into perspective. In the U.S. alone, there are 80 deaths due to auto accidents every day.
The real issue is not about the number of deaths robots have caused; rather, it’s about helping the general population have a better understanding of robots. For most people, their understanding of robots comes from the movies. That’s also where their fear of robots developed. And who can blame them? From the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still to the modern remake of the TV series Battlestar Gallactica, Hollywood tends to portray robots as human killers determined to destroy the earth. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
Whether we are talking about robots or any other technology, one thing is certain: It’s not the tool; it’s how you use it. In other words, you can use technology to give you cancer or to cure your cancer. Whether a technology tool or a robot is used for good or evil, it all comes down to the human responsible for creating or controlling it. That’s right … humans cause robot-related fatalities.
This is true even in the 33 industrial deaths mentioned earlier. In these industrial settings, the robot works in a cage that is posted with signs that read: “Do not enter when robot is in use.” Despite the warning, people sometimes enter the cage while the robot is working, often to perform maintenance. Unfortunately, the robot doesn’t know that a person is there. It has no sensors; it’s just a dumb machine. That’s when the robot, which is just doing the job it’s been programmed to do, hits the person and kills him. The mistake wasn’t on the robot’s part; it was human error for entering the cage without verifying that the robot was disabled.
So should we be worried about robots as we go forward? Yes and no. Fortunately, the no is bigger than the yes. Thanks to advanced sensors, robots are becoming increasingly intelligent, just like our cars, bridges, appliances, and other technologies. Today’s robots can sense light, heat, touch, sound, distance, and a number of other things. We also have much more powerful computers to connect the robots to, giving them more intelligence and the ability to make decisions in real time. For example, if the robot senses someone in its way, it can be programmed to automatically stop and ask the person to move. If the person does not move, the robot knows not to continue with what it was doing. These kinds of safety features make robots less dangerous in any setting.
When you combine the addition of sensors with the three digital accelerators of processing power, storage, and bandwidth (which I’ve written about extensively), you can create robots that not only react to what’s taking place in the environment, but also predict what’s going to happen, giving us a whole new generation of robots. Will there be accidents? Of course. Humans design and create the robots, and humans make mistakes.
But are we going to have killer robots? Well, we already have those being used by the military. They’re called drones. So as you can clearly see, it’s not the tool; it’s how you use it. Unless you program a robot to drop bombs or hurt people, it won’t do that on its own.
As I see it, robots are uniquely qualified to always be aware of their surroundings: they don’t sleep, they don’t drink, and they don’t get bored. They’re ideal for helping humans in so many ways. Robots are here to stay. It will be up to us humans to use robots to help mankind.