Episode 109 – Thinking About Our Future With Robots

To listen to this episode, download the mp3 directly, find us on iTunes, or use the player below.
Illah Nourbakhsh (Gigapan)

Illah R. Nourbakhsh

Our guest this week is Illah Nourbakhsh, author of Robot Futures.  As Professor of Robotics at The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, Illah has been building and thinking about robotics for most of his life.  Illah joins us to talk about his book, our potential future with robots and how students should be inspired to learn with purpose.


Quotes from the Show:

We talk a lot about smog in general as kind of a pollution, this haze that is a distraction from what you hope, in terms of what you want to see around you, and the air you breathe that has long term health consequences. And one of the interesting things about robotics is that [ ] you can build robots. But as more and more people build robots of every kind, the physical world fills with robots of our own creation feels more and more like the digital world when people started making all sorts of websites with really bad flash animations on them.  …You can get a 3-D printer – and they’re getting cheaper and cheaper – and now you can start building these things. And you have your Arduino, so you have your brain for your robot, and now you can have a body, and yeah, wifi is getting cheaper – Texas Instruments is making some excellent wifi modules at a really low cost – so your little robot that you build on your 3-D printer can be online relatively quickly, it can be controlled online, it can send pictures online, it can move around in the physical world. And oh, by the way, it can fly. Flying robots are getting cheaper really fast. For $10, $15 you can make a robot that flies. So now you go take a walk in the park, and the walk in the park is like looking at really bad flash pages on the web. You keep seeing these moronic robots.

We’re at this cusp of time when educators have the power to enable their students to really push back on the world. They can make changes to the world, they can measure things in the world. Using robotic technologies, students aren’t just in this ivory tower anymore. They can measure water pollution, they can measure air pollution, they can make a robot that does something sculptural in the park. That power though, means that students need a sense of design, and a sense of ethical and moral thinking that we never thought we needed at that young age. We thought that our ability to make decisions about the consequences of our actions kind of only extended to our body and what our body does. But we can invent stuff now that used to be the problems of research labs. So educators not only need to give students the power to invent – because they need to be creators – but they need to teach them what it means to think about the process of invention. To think about the ethics of society. And that’s not a lesson that we’ve ever been busy teaching people in say, middle school and high school before.

The problem is, that when the teacher’s teaching with technology, there’s two different ways you can do this. You can do this with technology for technology’s sake. …We can have ten ping-pong balls on a big table, and we tell the students: “make robots that collect the ping-pong balls and stop at the other robots”. And so the students will learn a lot about technology, they’ll learn about systems, engineering and teamwork, and they’ll build a ping-pong collecting robot, which has no real use in the world. And what they just learned is that they can invent stuff. With no purpose. They can invent stuff with arbitrary sets of rules.  …You can take the same kids – the exact same kids – and tell them: “you see this bridge that crosses the Allegheny river? We want people to walk …from this side to this side rather than commuting by car. But it gets icy. But there’s fish in the river beneath it. Study the ecosystem, put water sensors in the water, figure out how a robot can de-ice it safely, so that people can commute to work.” Now they have to go learn about urban planning, about fish ecology, about macro-invertebrates, about chemistry, about physics, and about robotics, and they have to build a system that solves a real problem in the world. Same kids. But what they just learned is that robotic technology is one part of trying to engineer a solution to a societal problem.

Illah Nourbakhsh Lecture: Ethics in Robotics (YouTube)

To listen to this episode, download the mp3 directly, find us on iTunes, or use the player below.