Sunday, September 11, 2016

Robots for Social Good

News stories that portray robots as “villains” often get much publicity by creating fear and panic among the general public. For example, as a result of recent high profile news stories, many people are beginning to view robots (and automation technologies in general) as a major threat to their jobs and financial well-being. The widespread availability of drones —I consider drones as a type of robot-- is raising serious questions about their roles in spying on the unsuspecting pubic and the loss of privacy. Concerns about the dangers of weaponized robots that could intentionally or accidentally kill human beings have been raised at several international forums. Robots equipped with advanced artificial intelligence are beginning to raise alarm that self-learning robots might lead to a doomsday scenario by subjugating the human race. I find all this negative publicity highly one-sided and a recipe for a Robophobia epidemic. We really need to pay attention to the positive side of the rise-of-robots story to get an accurate assessment of the situation.

A large number of people are working on applications of robots that focus on the social good. I want to use this post to highlight this aspect of robots. Here are a few representative examples:
  • Robots are expected to significantly improve agriculture practice by monitoring crops constantly and using water, fertilizers, and pesticides more precisely. This emerging area is called precision agriculture and can significantly conserve water and reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides to make our farms more eco-friendly. 
  • Robots are being used to monitor wildlife population and curb poaching of endangered animals by more effectively mobilizing limited law enforcement agents and gathering evidence for prosecution. 
  • The next generation prosthetics is is expected to be based on advances in robotics and will help people with disabilities in gaining independence and living a more productive life. 
  • Robots will enable elderly people to live in their own homes with dignity and hence significantly improve their quality of life. 
  • Robots can bring high quality healthcare to remote regions through tele-robotics concepts. This is expected to improve access to healthcare and control outbreaks of deadly diseases. 
  • Robots are showing potential for use in behavior therapy for autism spectrum disorders. 
  • Human-safe robots will help manufacturing workers to increase their productivity and reducing the chances of workplace injuries. This can be used to grow new businesses and maintain high paying jobs in the manufacturing sector. 
  • Driverless cars are expected to significantly reduce transportation fatalities caused by human errors. This will also make personal transportation accessible to people who cannot drive due to disabilities or declining abilities.
  • Robots can be used to deliver humanitarian aid to regions that become inaccessible due to natural disasters. 
  • Robots have emerged as invaluable tools in K-12 STEM education. FIRST Robotics continues to grow, gain momentum and inspire millions of young people worldwide.
I view robots simply as tools to augment human abilities. Like any other major technological advance, robots can be used by some humans to harm other humans. However, the potential of robots to enable humans to do social good far outweighs this risk.

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