Will Robots Be Friend or Foe to Humanity?

March 5, 2018 - 5 minutes read

Evil robots are a beloved staple of the science fiction genre, no matter the medium. Usually equipped with unparalleled artificial intelligence (AI) and a sleek, indestructible chassis to match its dangerous cunning, bots like these have been in dozens of post-apocalyptic stories where humanity’s fate rests on the shoulders of only a few surviving protagonists.

But according to roboticist Ayanna Howard, the Director of the Human-Automation Systems Lab and Chair of the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech, it doesn’t have to be this way. Reality doesn’t have to follow fiction in this case. Of course, that’s if we get it right.

An Expert on Human-Robot Interaction

If those two titles above didn’t take your breath away from reading them, Dr. Howard is also the co-founder and CTO of Zyrorobotics, an educational company focused on teaching kids with technology. If you follow robotics, you may have heard of her SnoMote robots which study global warming’s impact on the ice shelves of Antarctica.

Since she was little, Dr. Howard wanted to work in science and engineering. Inspired by the 1976 show The Bionic Woman, she had an epiphany: “I wanted to be the bionic woman. The rest of my life has been about figuring out what that means.” She’s absolutely fascinated with human-robot interaction; she spends most of her time these days studying the benefits that people and robots bring to each other.

Augmentation for the Next Era

One of Dr. Howard’s current lab projects focuses on an exoskeleton that helps children with motor disabilities. “It’s focused on augmenting the capabilities of kids with motor disabilities for an improved quality of life,” says Dr. Howard. “For example, an exoskeleton for upper arm mobility that assists when needed lets them better interact with the world.”

Working with kids was a deliberate choice to impact the future more. Dr. Howard explains: “When I first started in this, I was working with older adults,” she said. “The science was good but didn’t get that feeling of changing the world. But now I feel like because I’m improving the next generation so they can improve the next generation and so on.”

False Fears?

So how does Dr. Howard feel about people’s fear of robotics or AI development going too far? “I understand those fears. We roboticists don’t talk enough about it. Half of it is the way people understand robotics. Like with any technology, there’s a bad part. But if we do robotics right, the benefits will outweigh the negatives.”

She gives an example of another tool that vastly outgrew its buzzword status in San Francisco development communities to transform the world: “The Internet has negatives, too, but it’s also helped to equalize access to information. Robotics will equalize access to jobs and work and training. Robotics will allow people to be empowered to do other things that don’t require an engineering degree.”

Prudence and Preparation Are Key

Dr. Howard envisions a future where robotics plays an integral role in practically every aspect of society, from education to agriculture. Although she admits there could be some turbulence. “Robotics is going to reshape the economic landscape. It used to be 90% of people were farmers, but now that percentage is very small. Jobs will get redefined. 65% of jobs that exist now won’t exist when our kids grow up,” she says.

But she believes the key to maximizing the benefits we get from robots requires us to embrace the technology. That means being prudent and preparing for the inevitable changes: “…We need to think about retraining so that when people lose jobs in one area, we need to focus on getting them to learn different skills. Some companies are already starting to think about that, but we need to be more deliberative about it.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,