What's Holding Back the Robot Revolution? We Humans.
People have been salivating over the idea of flying cars since George Jetson debuted his Aerocar in 1962. After a long wait, a real flying car debuted last year: the AeroMobil 3.0. Other companies have already joined the fray, with Airbus pledging to develop an autonomous flying car as well as systems to allow these vehicles to safely navigate cities. Uber is pushing to have its flying taxis airborne by 2020.
But if the University of Michigan’s Survey of Public Opinion About Flying Cars is any indication, there’s a reason flying cars have been so long delayed: us. Nearly two-thirds of people surveyed said they were “very concerned” about the safety of flying cars, and about 80 percent thought flying cars should come equipped with parachutes.
Most, it seems, shared Elon Musk’s hesitation: “If somebody doesn’t maintain their flying car, it could drop a hubcap and guillotine you,” Musk observed. Your anxiety level will not decrease as a result of things that weigh a lot buzzing around your head.
The irony is that we’re still asking for flying cars: Nearly half of the respondents in the University of Michigan survey indicated they were “very interested” in using one. But our doubts may be the very thing keeping us from getting what we want.
Barriers blocking the robot revolution
Artificial intelligence and the robot revolution it could prompt promise self-driving machines, quality-control robots and the like -- with the potential to improve our world. But that doesn’t mean AI technology has been met with open arms.
Nuclear technology spurred an arms race, and some fear AI will do the same. Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s words on artificial intelligence seem, to many, a chilling call to arms: “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia but for all humankind. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”
Indeed, Russia, China and the United States are all rushing to amass AI weapons and national security systems that will boost their military efforts and give human soldiers additional eyes and abilities.
Smart software is now considered the equivalent to nukes -- a way to bolster a country’s military advantage through modern technology. As WIRED’s Tom Simonite explained, “The AI race among the world’s three largest military powers differs from earlier competitions like those to deploy nuclear weapons or stealth technology because much artificial intelligence technology can be used for both commercial and military applications.”
That’s exactly what makes some of us suspicious: What proof do we have that AI tech is going to be used to automate drudge-filled processes rather than spy on us over Grandma’s Thanksgiving spread? After all, our seemingly innocuous Facebook news feeds were purportedly hijacked to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. What’s next?
And at the personal level, many of us balk at the tech industry’s attempts to humanize robot interactions. Hanson Robotics built a machine-learning robot, Sophia, that aims to have real conversations with humans; but Facebook’s head AI scientist, Yann LeCun, said that the robot’s cognitive abilities are akin to a puppet’s.
So, while scripted, algorithm-generated responses may win AI (human) supporters during a Google search, they're not much use for exploring deeper thoughts.
How humans can get out of their own way.
With consumers clamoring for more advanced technology but poking holes in what they’re given, how can AI-focused companies work to usher in the robot revolution?
1. Bring down the costs for first (second, third, fourth … ) movers. New technology always carries the first-mover cost burden, but the price barrier has to be removed for mainstream implementation of AI tech and robots. Recode reports that the market for device-building industrial robots is expected to grow 175 percent over the next nine years, but predicts that that expectation won’t be met if factory floor robots continue to hover in the $100,000 range.
Industrial robot companies seem to have received the message. By 2025, the cost of industrial robots is predicted to drop by 65 percent, according to research by ARK Investment Management, but there’s more work to be done. As other technologies, like 3D printing, improve and accelerate the production of robots, the associated costs will go down. Finding ways to reduce the cost of producing not only robots, but also the technology that makes them possible, will fuel the robot revolution.
2. Don’t let misconceptions marinate. While it’s easy to assume that improved technology will address concerns and instantly change minds, the truth is that the longer that false assumptions are allowed to persist, the better traction they’ll gain. One good way to combat this is by creating legislation that treats AI as a partner, not something to fear. Openly discussing “personhood” and the responsibilities ascribed to robots and their developers could quell fears, as could examining the impact robots might have on unions and other labor organizations and on human rights.
Hossein Rahnama, founder and CEO of Flybits, explained in her blog that “the rise of the robots, not surprisingly, also comes with a healthy dose of fear ... In response, CEOs are scrambling to figure out how AI will influence supply chains, workforces, revenue and in some cases, entire business models. An overwhelming sense of urgency can lead companies to throw money at the first platform they encounter.” Instead, leaders should think through what technologies will address real problems and be understood by the consumers with those problems.
3. Pay utmost attention to security. Cybersecurity and privacy are top concerns for consumers, with a CNNMoney poll showing that nearly half of those surveyed say they'd been victims of hackers. With AI digitizing entire processes and collecting and utilizing vast amounts of data, people are more alarmed than ever. Investing in security technology to protect AI technology -- and consumers — is a win for both companies and users.
K.R. Sanjiv, chief technology officer for Wipro Limited, wrote in The Observer that, “Unlike humans, robots can be hacked. Industrial robots today follow modified versions of Asimov’s three laws ... What happens if someone hacks the machine to remove one of those laws? A hacker could commit murder by allowing a robot to harm a human or destroy valuable equipment by removing the prohibition of self-harm.” Understanding the power robots have, companies must be motivated to isolate that power and wield it for good.
Related: Volvo to Create the Next Flying Car?
To return to George Jetson’s flying car: That animated cartoon character's world was much simpler than ours, but we can eliminate our own real barriers to the robot revolution by addressing the concerns that make us humans doubt AI.
By acknowledging very real fears, from stolen data to falling hubcaps, companies can get consumers fully on board and bring them the flying car reality they want.