I, Robot Redux

I usually write technical articles, tutorials mostly—teaching is in my blood.

It explains a few of my quirks to also know that science fiction flows through me in equal measure. Achievements in both software and hardware have been so fast and so radical in the last few years, that I feel like I’m living in a sci-fi novel. A mere five years ago I could not have dreamed we’d be seriously talking about self-driving cars and trucks going mainstream.

Nevertheless, a recent article in The Hustle—a millennial-targeted tech biz digital publication that I highly recommend—gave me pause. It reminded me how important it is to take time to think about the dangers inherent within many technologies: The specific case in point, robots.

The article was entitled, “What happens when a robot kills someone?” It was a sobering look at how dangerous the current state of robotic technology truly is. It is a little-known fact that in the last 25 years, robots of various varieties have killed 61 humans. The economic advantages of mechanical automation are so profound that we have not blinked with respect to our forward progress. I bet economists could easily create an argument that more than 61 lives were saved due to the higher standard of living derived from robotic technology and therefore the better medical care for all during that same period.

And they’d be right.

But what dawned on me as I read The Hustle article was that it is now easily within our grasp to begin to implement Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics. They are, for those of you who are woefully deprived:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws

Asimov’s plots frequently revolved around the intricacies—and difficulties—inherent within advanced robotics and the Three Laws.

One of the things I love about working with the most amazing people in technology is that I can waddle through our “bullpen” and look over the shoulder of folks working on incredible projects, including a quick computer vision demo I got a few months ago.  That particular demo and The Hustle article got linked by some synaptic firing in my brain; I suddenly realized that we don’t have to live with robot-related deaths as an acceptable cost of progress anymore. Any potentially dangerous robotic mechanism can be fitted with inexpensive cameras and relatively simple software programmed to prevent injury to humans.

One example from The Hustle article was about the first recorded robot-related fatality:

On January 25, 1979, a 25 year-old factory worker named Robert Williams scaled a storage rack at the Ford Motor Company’s Flat Rock Casting Plant.

One of three workers in the parts retrieval system, he was tasked with overseeing an industrial robot — a one-ton, 5-story mass of gears that transferred car parts from the shelves to ground level.

That night, the bot gave an erroneous inventory reading, and Williams was forced to ascend on his own. He never made it: Halfway up, the robot struck him from behind, crushed his body, and left him to die high above the factory floor.

If the descendants of that robot were outfitted with cameras and a spatial description of a danger zone, it could be automatically stopped when a human entered that zone. In fact, the head of our data science group assured me that we could identify when a part of a human entered a danger zone, i.e. a head, a hand, a foot, whatever.

Blueprint has a wealth of expertise in the knowledge domains required to make all of this happen. Personally, I’d love to be involved with a project that could save lives, and I know that our expertise with state-of-the-art technologies makes this doable.

I will also predict that market forces will soon make this a necessary part of the robotics business. This is a good opportunity to get a large advantage over your competitors and generate some good press, too.

And I think the good Dr. Asimov would be pleased, too.