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Robots Among Us
From iRobot.com

From iRobot.com

In 1973, the now nearly-sainted Michael Jackson first popularized the dance “The Robot” with the Jackson Five’s hit “Dancing Machine.” In 1984, the first Terminator movie hit theaters, with humans pitted against robots from the future.

In 2009 — right now — robots are, in fact, moving into more and more facets of life, from cleaning gutters to making war.

My guest today, iRobot CEO Colin Angle, says robots won’t take over the world, but they will merge with us. In fact, he says, they already are.

This hour, On Point: iRobot’s co-founder, and the future of the robotic world.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Guest:

We’re joined in our studio by Colin Angle, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of iRobot. iRobot produces – among other products – the popular floor-vacuuming “Roomba” robot, and the military “PackBot” robot, in wide use by the U.S. Armed Forces. Colin is one of the world’s leading experts on mobile robots, and formerly worked at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

More:

You can watch a number of videos of iRobot products on the company’s YouTube channel. Here are a couple we liked: a prototype of the iRobot Warrior and a “flying” iRobot PackBot.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Expanded Consciousness

    Robots and computers will help us for awhile, for as long as we can control them, but artificial intelligence will be the end of us.

    Explain to me how it won’t be. Why wouldn’t robots/computers/artificial intelligence conclude that it is logical that they take over and that the human species is its biggest threat and should be removed? Because we will program them to value and protect humans? No, artificial intelligence in machines will be able to reproduce itself and program itself any way it sees fit and deems logical.

    It is precisely as if you were creating human sociopaths, without emotions, without a conscience, without attachment-bonds to other humans, and at the same time smarter, faster, stronger, superior to anyone else. True Frankensteins.

    The humans species is doomed and has always been. We are the species that is too smart for its own good. That is our epitaph. An animal can kill its prey with its bodily strength. A caveman with its bodily strength or by picking up a rock. Throughout time we have increased our ability to harness energy – destructive energy (all energy is potentially destructive energy). And, right now, today, we can detonate nuclear warheads in the atmosphere and end most of life on Earth.

    I see no cause for hope. The genie is out of the bottle. It was over and inevitable as soon as we evolved complex brains and the opposable thumb. Don’t talk to me about enlightenment, rationality, controls and safe guards, removing destructive impulses by altering our brains, or even colonizing other planets. All temporary delays to the inevitable.

    While we will not see all these disasters or Armageddon in our lifetime (hopefully), we did get to live at a very interesting time and witness the very birth of that which will be our end.

    I challenge you to use logic, reason and science and prove me wrong. I can see no other conclusion other than the end is inevitable and just a matter of time.

    If you are still not convinced, can you imagine inventing a gun – this machine which can hurl objects with greater energy than we can throw an object – and this gun exists forever, for time immemorial, without ever being shot and killing another human being? No, right? Machines, computers, robots, artificial intelligence, splitting atoms, etc is the unleashing of energy greater than our own. And just like the gun they will go off, eventually.

    So, enjoy the program and the giggling over all the neat things that robots can and will soon be able to do. It will be fun … for awhile.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    I’d love to hear what Colin thinks robots will look like in 10, 20, 100, or 1000 years.

    Does he think Roomba could ever have an attitude?

    I’d also love to hear Colin’s take on Skynet or HAL. While the downside of current robots isn’t them taking over, it’s certainly scary to think of an autonomous robot with a machine gun mounted on it roaming the streets looking for “bad guys.”

  • Rem

    To further support EC’s post: Perhaps before robots acquire enough intelligence to do away with us, we might all just be gobbled up as fuel. See article from “Science”

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/07/09/eatr_beta/

  • Jim A.

    As the prior comments show, you can never bring up robots without evoking the Frankenstein story arc, in which creations go horribly wrong and either kill their creators or their creators “kill” them. (By the way, it’s tough to “kill” mechanisms that aren’t alive to start with, just powered up or powered down.)

    People’s imaginations imbue robots with characteristics they wouldn’t attribute to their washing machines, refrigerators, or cars. What are Colin’s opinions about this phenomenon? Is it healthy for people to harbor these feelings, either affectionate or fearful? Should those knowledgeable about technology indulge or refute these projections? These feelings are certainly useful as a marketing tool at times, but the revenue from devices and movies at some level should be traded off vs. encouraging the paranoid delusions of people like the first poster above.

    (Full disclosure: I’ve worked for iRobot and know Colin, and I still work producing mobile robots. I’m also a neighbor of Tom Ashbrook’s.)

  • Questioning

    Expanded Consciousness,

    What do you think you just typed that comment on?
    you seem to like that piece of technology.
    … hmmm

  • Anonymous

    I think people who are afraid that AI will automatically become SkyNet and take over the world are forgetting an important aspect of AI.

    AI will likely NOT have emotion as the first post said. And a being without emotion is not driven to destroy things for self preservation. The reason you think so, is because you are human and primarily driven by emotion. Your emotions with your intelligence cause you do get scared by a threat, and then attempt to eliminate that threat. If you don’t get scared, why would you defend yourself.

    Another note is that even if AI needs or has emotion, that as long as AI is actually intelligent, to the same or higher level as humans, then it won’t be interested in destroying us. Reason being that all other animals that have high intelligence levels show compassion towards preservation of other species. For example, Dolphins have repeatedly been shown to protect humans and other animals from sharks.

  • Geoff B

    The main reason you don’t have to worry about robots taking over the world is that “artificial intelligence” is not anything at all like real intelligence. AI is just a collection of technologies that are used to control the behavior of computers, it bears little resemblance to the way humans think. Computer are only capable of carrying out the instructions programmed into them by humans. If robots are ever used to kill massive amounts of people it will be because that is exactly what the creators of the robots wanted them to do.

  • Willie Brice

    Stepen Hawkins,stated a month ago that within 100yrs robots and artificial intelligence will challenge us for control. Who is the watchmen? Who is putting safeguards into place?

    -Wille
    Naples, FL.

  • http://www.robotics.org Scot C.

    All AI aside, I’ve been working with industrial and mfgt. automation for a few years now and the types of products and machinery we are able to produce as a result of the high tech and advanced robotic precision and accuracy is profound! Some of the medical applications on the market are great examples.

    My point is: without robots, we as humans would not have some of our technologically advanced products of today because physical human limitation.

  • Todd

    Robotics make waging a “coward’s war’ TOO easy. Risk is a necessary part of a just war. If you’re not willing to die for a cause, then maybe it isn’t as justified as you pretend it to be. Robots merely facilitate a means to achieve a greater inhumanity.

  • Tom

    Are the robots built in the US?

    If not why not?

  • Greg

    Can you talk about Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the future? Namely, the “singularity” when artificial intelligence matches our own. This is not a dream but an expectation, also expected by the US Department of Defense by 2050.

  • Brad Millman

    I want to add to the comments of the first person who commented on the air. He questioned what would happen to our manufacturing jobs. I think he raises an important question. To drive the point further, it is not just manufacturing jobs, but what will happen to jobs for the less educated/less people in our society. While I believe that robot technology is inevitable, it will cause a greater class distinction in our country

  • Mari

    I am listening to this man extolling the virtues of robots as weapons. The military applications he describes are very scary.

    How does a robot know friend from foe? Humans will decide. Men will program the robot to kill other humans. The record shows that humans have always been known to make horrible mistakes. So, robots will do the killing and the human programmers will say, “It wasn’t me, I’m innocent. The robot did it.”

    As well, shouldn’t we ask the elderly subjects of this proposed “robotic care taking” experiment if they would prefer a loving human helper to an electronic gadget before we foist unfeeling robots upon them as a
    substitute?

    Sounds like another sinister scheme to push more expensive, consumer crap on perfectly good people who, left to our own devices, can do the jobs at hand quite well without the “help” of robots.

  • Peter

    What does Colin think about Asimov’s three laws of robotics and how does he see them working as robots evolve from (science) fiction to reality?

  • Jean

    When will the cafeteria workers have to give up their hairnets and become radio producers?

  • Jeff

    Advances in technology have been taking away jobs from humans since we applied it to farming millennia ago. This is what allowed us to build civilizations by freeing us from subsistence tasks.

  • Colin Wright

    Hi Tom,
    Has your guest seen the movie “I Robot” with Will Smith? Will robot technology ever get that far (in our life time) and what if the depiction of the movie comes true? Also bad robot movies *Terminator, *Eagle Eye (A.I. computers). Can this happen?

  • Peggy Sapphire

    We are a world already at a loss for human compassion, which robots can never emulate. Why don’t the genius’ of this world put their intellectual prowess to work on the behalf of World Peace…nurturing the better angels of human nature rather than cultivating better angels of War?
    Answer: it’s all about $$$$.

  • Bernard Biales

    Note that when the question of being able to kill without being killed being a temptation to war was raised, Mr. Angle totally avoided the question in a long and irrelevent paean of praise to war use of robots. And Mr. A let him het away with it.
    (Although somewhat tangential, it was claimed that three Afghanis were murdered by CIA drone because one was tall and bin Laden is tall. There systems weren’t very good, because the main victim was significantly shorter than bin Laden.)

  • Jim Noon

    Robotics is part of a rapidly growing computer field, artificial intelligence. Re artificial intelligence, AI guru Raymond Kurzweil says that computers will outperform the human brain by 2020. Computers will ultimately outperform humans partly because they don’t have to deal with the primitive brainstem and midbrain functions like lust, rage, jealousy, etc.

    BTW, your guest is very disappointing. He obviously has not thought over the issues that robotics and AI raise.

  • Todd

    Oh sure, let’s interface the brain with AI, so we can control machines with our minds! C’mon Tom, let’s consider the idea that this process can also be REVERSE ENGINEERED! No thank you!

  • Mike

    if anyone likes to read or listen about the comments the guess said about robot legs and arms u can find it on talk of the nation Sci friday web site.

    if your interested in computers interfacing with human brains and such u should google or try and watch a anime ghost in the shell.

    if your interested in a movie or show involving all of society being able to download information check out the outer limits( sorry not sure the name of it).

    Great show Tom and thanks to your guess for the informative conversation.

  • Greg

    The document I referred to in my last post is the U.S. Joint Forces Command’s “Joint Operating Environment: Challenges and Implications for the Future Joint Force.”

    http://www.jfcom.mil/newslink/storyarchive/2008/JOE2008.pdf

    Page 23 cites Ray Kurzweil’s prediction that (at the current exponential pace) by 2050, $1,000 will buy you a processor that does as many calculations per second as the entire human race. (So I must correct myself: this is not necessarily equivalent to an artificial intelligence mastermind.)

  • Bob Edwards

    Colin and the robot cheerleaders are a very dangerous group. I would like them to be completely controlled and managed. He is not really prepared to deal with the issues and is only touting his own company. As others are saying it’s all about his and his industries personal well-being. His lack of awareness for such concerns is clearly self serving.

  • Todd

    Well said Bob Edwards!

  • Mari

    Very disappointing program. It was nothing more than an hour long commercial advertisement for iRobot’s consumer product, the roomba.

  • gabrielle

    we’ve already done away with the industrial sector in this country, now we want to destroy the service sector as well…

  • Diana Arezzo

    I was horrified to hear Angle comment that we need war robots to “protect our way of life” from bad people who display “human nature” by unjustly invading others. WE are the ones who just committed a war crime by invaded Iraq, based only on deception and greed, and we are responsible for the deaths of up to 200,000 Iraqis, and creating terrorists who were not there before. The military does not even attempt to count the dead Iraqis. They don’t want us to know. If robots make killing even more clean, efficient, and cost free, there will be more killing by whomever controls the robots. There will be no control over who uses killer robots and for what purpose. We are in NO position to preach about how our use of killer robots is and will always be justified. Is anyone asking the thousands of innocent Pakistanis and Afghanistanis who are being killed and maimed by US Predator Drones what they think about justice?

  • Philip Faler ND

    You can not both prepare for war and peace simultaneously. The more war machines we make the more war we will have so do not hide you profits behind the guise that your technology “saves brave lives” it encourages and generate and makes more likely war and there by kills people. Yes Mr Angle i heard your distractor comment that there will always be Sadam Huasans… and I say there will always be so long as we answer violence with violence.

    We must promote peace and answer violence with reason compassion and education. War breeds war. its that simple. Mr Angle either you are a part of the solution moving humanity toward a greater state of consciousness or you are a part of the problem create greater human suffering.

  • http://www.cariani.com Peter Cariani

    I worked on the problem of epistemology of devices that adaptively construct their own sensors, in a manner analogous to biological evolution of sensory organs
    (i.e. “evolutionary robotics”).

    Eventually several loops will be closed. The history of technology is a transition from linear production processes to circular ones (as in the assembly line that is a connected set of cycles, see the book “Mechanization Takes Command”).

    Each step is successively further out in the future:

    1) we will reach the point where some robots will be capable of assembling themselves from their parts (a few very primitive ones that do this are around).
    2) a standard set of primitive parts and modules will be designed that allows for “universal construction” — many different kinds of robots can be made from the same parts-set
    3) robots will become capable of self-construction and self-design such that they can evolve their own hardware
    (through adaptive, evolutionary inherit-variation-selection processes and/or through more direct design optimization strategies).
    4) eventually we will have adaptive, intelligent robotic devices that have much more flexible behavior and are capable of learning, even higher concept learning. This is still VERY far off, partly due to the failure of symbolic AI research programs and partly because we do not yet understand how the brain works as an information processing system (despite all the hype one hears).

    This technological evolution, like all others before it, has benefits, drawbacks, and risks. I think the most potentially dangerous self-replicating systems are on microscopic scales: molecular nano- and bio-technologies. More likely than the Terminator scenario is something more like a runaway artificially-created self-replication pandemic. Fortunately the fearful scenarios generated from the development of recombinant DNA technologies in the 1970′s never came to pass because of natural biological barriers to self-replication, but it is a near certainty that someone for some reason somewhere down the line will think it’s a good idea to make molecular self-replicating systems.

  • jonas

    Once again on point and NPR present a very limited and biased story, what amounts to no more than an informerical. You give the chief salesperson for a major business unbridled and unopposed opportunity to present his ad for robotics. As just one example, his claim that robotics have not cost any auto workers their job. He simply declares that to be true and the M.C. simply says that that is amazing. No questions as to whether the salesperson has any stats or studies or research to back up that claim.
    Does anyone really beleive that robotics in the auto industry has not reduced the amount of workers per produced car? Now, it might be that robotics is great and great for the economy in many ways. but should government radio be in the business of giving free airtime to its salespeople w/o even the pretense of making sure that the sales pitch is backed up with facts?
    Similarly, if anyone listened to here and now, they would have heard about some of the consewquences of automation for airplane safety.
    Be sure and do another fund raising pitch stating that we can’t hear this kind of stuffanywhere else. Well, we can; on any corporate website.

  • Jean

    Like I said. Mechanization of low level jobs, like spoon operator in cafeteria, frees them to do more creative jobs like commercial artist, brain surgeon, crime scene investigator or harpist.

  • Expanded Consciousness

    An excellent documentary

    Sci Fi Files: March Of The Machine

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4rkroahrSY&annotation_id=annotation_851795&feature=iv

  • JUSTICE ST RAIN

    The economic problem with robots is simple:
    Robots make cars, but they don’t buy cars. If the profit from making the cars can be distributed equitably among the people of the world, then more power to them. If it is all given to the few who already have more than they are able to spend, then robots create a downward spiral in which there are never enough wages in the system to purchase the goods that are manufacturered.

  • Peter

    Tom,

    Thanks for a very interesting show. I listened on our local Vermont Public Radio station. Coincidentally, our local paper ran a story this morning about the 1500 Vermont National Guard members now deploying for Afghanistan – our largest deployment since WW2. I hope they can use some of Colin’s bomb detecting robots to help keep them safe.

  • Corinna Moebius

    Ok — here are some of my questions about robots. Don’t robots use natural resources in order to function? Whether they’re “plugged in” or use batteries, in some way they do use energy. If we become increasingly dependent on robots, how much will this add a drain on our natural resources? And also — how will this impact jobs and employment, and even something as basic as our creativity?

    Robotic technology also seems to create yet another way we will disconnect ourselves from the land — and from each other. If we can just download calculus into our brain, why would we need teachers? Why would we need to talk to each other? If we are just communicating in transfers of “data” — why do we need to build human relationships? Everything becomes a transaction. Predictable. Programmable. Will robots become more like us or will we end up becoming more like robots?

    These are just some of my questions.

  • Expanded Consciousness

    Today was also the announcement of a major medical breakthrough.

    Scientists create artificial sperm cells from human embryonic stem cells
    Wed, Jul 8 11:05 AM
    London, July 8 (ANI): “Scientists have achieved a major breakthrough in making sperm-like cells from human embryonic stem cells.

    Karim Nayernia, of the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne in the UK, has revealed that these cells can swim like sperm do.

    He says that his team used the same technique to create sperm-like cells from human embryonic stem cells that he had used in 2006 to produced sperm from mouse embryonic stem cells.

    The team labelled embryonic stem cells with a fluorescent marker attached to a particular gene that is expressed during reproductive-cell development, and cultured the cells in a medium that encourages differentiation into sperm cells.”

    http://in.news.yahoo.com/139/20090708/1662/ttc-scientists-create-artificial-sperm-c.html

    Science marches on. Control over life, indeed.

  • Lilya Lopekha

    This guy is great … he is so thoughtful … he even talked about an athlete having a robot in his body in order to achieve higher levels of performance.

    And then he says… Iraq … “the enemy” … we kick down a door … so naturally, so smoothly, so fluently as if saying the Sun rising every morning.

    Who is door are we kicking? How about not being there, in the first place? How about Mexican Military kicking your Mansion’s door?

    He is so corrupt in his business ethics. He is nothing but a war-profiteer.

    I don’t think he is a bad guy, but illegal and immoral wars/occupations makes us all “evil” if we are any party to the party.

  • http://rickschettino.com Rick Schettino

    A lot of the fears and concerns people have are based on having the tiniest sliver of a vision of the future – hence their fears are self inflicted and not based on reality.

    The idea of advancing technology is to eliminate scarcity, poverty, and drudgery. Why should we be afraid of losing our manufacturing jobs when food, water, shelter, and clothing, and other necessities of life will be manufactured at a molecular level using essentially limitless clean power. Then instead of working our butts off all the time we can be caring for our own and enjoying life together and educating ourselves.

    To the guy who posed the question about inventing a gun and never using it, and to anyone who says that we are doomed because of our techonological prowess… Let’s remember that guns were invented for protection AND assault – both. Any technology can be used for evil and good. It’s human nature that’s the problem, not technology. And human nature is changing exponentially along with communication and information. I think extremism will decline exponentially as more and more people get online and get access to alternative philosophies.

    Now, the hard question is will super intelligent machines eliminate us or use us for fuel? The human race with our limited intelligence has wised up to the value of life and diversity. Most highly educated people (by a long shot) prefer peace and harmony to war and destruction. There’s no reason that an advanced artificial intelligence will automatically take the opposite view. It is possible, of course, but not in the least bit is it guaranteed.

    Fear and hope lead in opposite directions. We can only go where we focus. Turn your back on fear and run towards hope with all your might.

  • John Koester

    One point that hasn’t been brought up is who benefits from this brave new world of robotics? Only the elites will be able to afford all these wonders at first, and it will be in their best interest to keep the technology for themselves. The difference between the haves and the have-nots will make the current digital divide look like a crack in the sidewalk. If I’m still alive by the time Mr. Angle’s plans come to fruition, sign me up for a savage reservation.
    John Koester

  • http://rickschettino.com Rick Schettino

    Furthermore, I believe that war will get less and less destructive as we create robots the size of an ant that can hunt down and immobilize individual combatants.

  • Expanded Consciousness

    “Any technology can be used for evil and good. It’s human nature that’s the problem, not technology. And human nature is changing exponentially along with communication and information.”

    Human nature is not changing. The human brain evolves very slowly and we have the same brain our ancestors did 10,000 years ago. Sorry, but, for example, playing video games and strengthening visual processing neuronal connections is the not the evolution of human nature (random mutation between generations granting a survival and reproductive advantage).

    There are two problems.
    1. Humans (irrational by nature) gaining more access to (destructive) power – bigger guns, as it were.

    2. AI. Independent intelligence not under human control. AI=logic. AI will treat us not like we treat other human civilizations (we have an attachment-bond to other humans), but like we treat animals. If a pest eats up our resources or posses a threat, we have no qualms about exterminating them. And that is so although we posses a moral conscience. Something AI will not.

    So, this is just a logical threat. Hope and fear play no part in the reality. It is just a future reality being born that we can face or deny, but no matter, nothing can be done about it. Genie is out of the bottle. Wheels set in motion. Just sit back and enjoy in the meantime.

    Regarding the economic future, there is indeed reason to be hopeful. We suffer from limited resources. Someday, molecular replicators will fulfill all our basic needs and then some. It will be the equivalent of not having $10,000 for a huge music collection to downloading off Pirate Bay $10,000 worth of music for free.

  • Expanded Consciousness

    “Only the elites will be able to afford all these wonders at first”

    Not to worry. The rate of time at which new technology passes from expensive (for elites) to cheap (available for all) is decreasing as technology increases. Kurzweil has made this point.

  • Catherine Barber

    [Quote from Richard 9 July 09]
    “I’d love to hear what Colin thinks robots will look like in 10, 20, 100, or 1000 years.”

    Like Asimov’s Daneel Olivaw I hope!

    [Quote from Expanded Consciousness 10 July 09]”
    “Any technology can be used for evil and good. It’s human nature that’s the problem, not technology.””

    Exactly!

    [Quote from Corinna Moebius 9 July 09]
    “Robotic technology also seems to create yet another way we will disconnect ourselves from the land — and from each other. If we can just download calculus into our brain, why would we need teachers? Why would we need to talk to each other? If we are just communicating in transfers of “data” — why do we need to build human relationships? Everything becomes a transaction. Predictable. Programmable. Will robots become more like us or will we end up becoming more like robots?”

    Humans could end up more like robots than robots, and robots could end up more like humans than humans…maybe. That’s if we could get to downloading perfect, or near-perfect, copies of human emotions into robots’ circuitry. Take Asimov’s humaniforms for example (though, yes, I know this is a 1000 plus years into the future!).

  • Expanded Consciousness

    [Quote from Expanded Consciousness 10 July 09]”
    “Any technology can be used for evil and good. It’s human nature that’s the problem, not technology.””

    No, Rick Schettino.

    [Quote from Rick Schettino 10 July 09]”
    “Any technology can be used for evil and good. It’s human nature that’s the problem, not technology.””

  • narysay

    Wow, how can a group of web browsing computer using educated people be so afraid?

    The robots are going to take our jobs!!
    The robots are going to force us into slavery!!
    The robots are going to kill us all!!

    Things are worse than I imagined.
    Gasp.

  • Anti-Vacuum

    “Colin and the robot cheerleaders are a very dangerous group. I would like them to be completely controlled and managed.”

    I had no idea there were still modern-day Luddites. Thanks for showing you’re still out there!

  • Expanded Consciousness

    narysay, Anti-Vacuum -
    No arguments.
    Just “don’t worry, be happy.”
    “You use a computer … hehehe!”

  • Samanta

    I agree with some of the callers and most of the posts. I was disappointed however by Mr Ashbrooks ‘go along’ attitude and only challenging the guest when the callers did. For that kind of ‘journalism’ we have the rest of the media, we support NPR to do actual journalism.

  • Expanded Consciousness

    “Only the elites will be able to afford all these wonders at first”

    Post corrected:

    Not to worry. The rate of time at which new technology passes from expensive (for elites only) to cheap (available for all) is accelerating as technological advances accelerate over time. Kurzweil has made this point.

  • Expanded Consciousness

    An interesting recent program on technology and robots as the savior of our economy:

    http://www.radioopensource.org/juan-enriquez-the-next-boom-by-zipcode/

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