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"What to Expect When You’re Expecting Robots"
New book explores a future populated with robot helpers.
As Covid-19 has made it necessary for people to keep their distance from each other, robots are stepping in to fill essential roles, such as sanitizing warehouses and hospitals, ferrying test samples to laboratories, and serving as telemedicine avatars.
There are signs that people may be increasingly receptive to robotic help, preferring, at least hypothetically, to be picked up by a self-driving taxi or have their food delivered via robot, to reduce their risk of catching the virus.
As more intelligent, independent machines make their way into the public sphere, engineers Julie Shah and Laura Major are urging designers to rethink not just how robots fit in with society, but also how society can change to accommodate these new, "working" robots.
Shah is an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and the associate dean of social and ethical responsibilities of computing in the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. Major SM '05 is CTO of Motional, a self-driving car venture supported by automotive companies Hyundai and Aptiv. Together, they have written a new book, "What to Expect When You're Expecting Robots: The Future of Human-Robot Collaboration," published this month by Basic Books.
What we can expect, they write, is that robots of the future will no longer work for us, but with us. They will be less like tools, programmed to carry out specific tasks in controlled environments, as factory automatons and domestic Roombas have been, and more like partners, interacting with and working among people in the more complex and chaotic real world. As such, Shah and Major say that robots and humans will have to establish a mutual understanding.
"Part of the book is about designing robotic systems that think more like people, and that can understand the very subtle social signals that we provide to each other, that make our world work," Shah says. "But equal emphasis in the book is on how we have to structure the way we live our lives, from our crosswalks to our social norms, so that robots can more effectively live in our world."
Getting to know you
As robots increasingly enter public spaces, they may do so safely if they have a better understanding of human and social behavior.
Consider a package delivery robot on a busy sidewalk: The robot may be programmed to give a standard berth to obstacles in its path, such as traffic cones and lampposts. But what if the robot is coming upon a person wheeling a stroller while balancing a cup of coffee? A human passerby would read the social cues and perhaps step to the side to let the stroller by. Could a robot pick up the same subtle signals to change course accordingly?
Shah believes the answer is yes. As head of the Interactive Robotics Group at MIT, she is developing tools to help robots understand and predict human behavior, such as where people move, what they do, and who they interact with in physical spaces. She's implemented these tools in robots that can recognize and collaborate with humans in environments such as the factory floor and the hospital ward. She is hoping that robots trained to read social cues can more safely be deployed in more unstructured public spaces.
Major, meanwhile, has been helping to make robots, and specifically self-driving cars, work safely and reliably in the real world, beyond the controlled, gated environments where most driverless cars operate today. About a year ago, she and Shah met for the first time, at a robotics conference.
"We were working in parallel universes, me in industry, and Julie in academia, each trying to galvanize understanding for the need to accommodate machines and robots," Major recalls.
From that first meeting, the seeds for their new book began quickly to sprout.
A cyborg city
In their book, the engineers describe ways that robots and automated systems can perceive and work with humans — but also ways in which our environment and infrastructure can change to accommodate robots.
A cyborg-friendly city, engineered to manage and direct robots, could avoid scenarios such as the one that played out in San Francisco in 2017. Residents there were seeing an uptick in delivery robots deployed by local technology startups. The robots were causing congestion on city sidewalks and were an unexpected hazard to seniors with disabilities. Lawmakers ultimately enforced strict regulations on the number of delivery robots allowed in the city — a move that improved safety, but potentially at the expense of innovation.
If in the near future there are to be multiple robots sharing a sidewalk with humans at any given time, Shah and Major propose that cities might consider installing dedicated robot lanes, similar to bike lanes, to avoid accidents between robots and humans. The engineers also envision a system to organize robots in public spaces, similar to the way airplanes keep track of each other in flight.
In 1965, the Federal Aviation Agency was created, partly in response to a catastrophic crash between two planes flying through a cloud over the Grand Canyon. Prior to that crash, airplanes were virtually free to fly where they pleased. The FAA began organizing airplanes in the sky through innovations like the traffic collision avoidance system, or TCAS — a system onboard most planes today, that detects other planes outfitted with a universal transponder. TCAS alerts the pilot of nearby planes, and automatically charts a path, independent of ground control, for the plane to take in order to avoid a collision.
Similarly, Shah and Major say that robots in public spaces could be designed with a sort of universal sensor that enables them to see and communicate with each other, regardless of their software platform or manufacturer. This way, they might stay clear of certain areas, avoiding potential accidents and congestion, if they sense robots nearby.
"There could also be transponders for people that broadcast to robots," Shah says. "For instance, crossing guards could use batons that can signal any robot in the vicinity to pause so that it's safe for children to cross the street."
Whether we are ready for them or not, the trend is clear: The robots are coming, to our sidewalks, our grocery stores, and our homes. And as the book's title suggests, preparing for these new additions to society will take some major changes, in our perception of technology, and in our infrastructure.
"It takes a village to raise a child to be a well-adjusted member of society, capable of realizing his or her full potential," write Shah and Major. "So, too, a robot."
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What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.
See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Credit: NAOJ<p><em>Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.</em></p>
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.