Expert Tells Robot Makers to Focus on the ‘Good’ of AI

Eliminate hidden biases and concentrate on the social benefits, robotics prof tells attendees at ATX Minneapolis.

Charles Murray

November 13, 2017

4 Min Read
Expert Tells Robot Makers to Focus on the ‘Good’ of AI

Engineers should concentrate on building "ethical robots," and not get too hung up on the potential threats of artificial intelligence, a robotics expert told attendees at ATX Minneapolis last week.

Maria Gini, Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota, said that the key to the success of intelligent machines is for their makers to use their imaginations in ways that benefit society. “Are robots going to take over the world and are we going to be slaves?” Gini asked. “Who knows? But if we focus on the bad things, we’ll never do anything. We need to focus on the good things we can do.”

“If we focus on the bad things, we’ll never do anything,” warned Maria Gini, Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota. “We need to focus on the good things we can do.” (Source: Design News/Jennifer Campbell)

In a speech that examined a wide range of ethical issues surrounding artificial intelligence, Gini cited numerous examples of intelligent technologies offering the potential to make life better for humans. Those included a therapeutic robot baby seal known as Paro, a programmable humanoid robot called Nao, and a four-legged running robot called BigDog, as well as Siri, Alexa, Google Home and autonomous cars. To call attention to that potential, she brought a Nao robot, which stood up and danced to the song, You Should Be Dancing, drawing laughter and cheers from the crowd of approximately 100 engineers.

Gini emphasized that solutions for the greater good can often be very simple. She cited an example of women in Africa who use GPS-based cell phones to connect to women in other villages, enabling them to walk together in groups, instead of walking alone in the dark.

“You don’t need to come up with anything very complicated,” Gini said. “Think about Paro, the baby seal robot. It’s simple to do. Does it make anyone rich? Probably not. Does it make some people happy? I’d say so.” To drive home the point, Gini showed a video of nursing home patients smiling and communicating after a visit from Paro.

Gini acknowledged that robots have the potential to take jobs, particularly in industrial and agricultural settings. Robots, she said, can pick apples, oranges and strawberries, drawing jobs away from willing workers. “Some people will be upset,” she said. “But some of those aren’t very good jobs. We need to get people trained to do different jobs.”

The key to using artificial intelligence for the greater good is to understand what it means for robots to be ethical, Gini said. She cited examples of technology companies – including IBM, Google, and Amazon – that are studying and defining what it means for machines to operate ethically. From those studies, roboticists have learned that ethics vary from person to person and culture to culture. That’s why transparency is important, she said.  “We have to make our algorithms more open, more self-explanatory,” she told Design News. “That’s a good first step – ensuring that there are no biases hidden in the decisions.”

Gini added that such efforts don’t guarantee that the technology won’t be used in harmful ways. But doing nothing, for fear of social threats, would also be wrong, she said.

“A lot of the solutions are very simple,” Gini concluded. “And because we are all experts in technology, we should be asking, ‘What can I do to help the world?’”

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 33 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.


About the Author(s)

Charles Murray

Charles Murray is a former Design News editor and author of the book, Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car, published by Purdue University Press. He previously served as a DN editor from 1987 to 2000, then returned to the magazine as a senior editor in 2005. A former editor with Semiconductor International and later with EE Times, he has followed the auto industry’s adoption of electric vehicle technology since 1988 and has written extensively about embedded processing and medical electronics. He was a winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award for his story, “The Making of a Medical Miracle,” about implantable defibrillators. He is also the author of the book, The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1997. Murray’s electronics coverage has frequently appeared in the Chicago Tribune and in Popular Science. He holds a BS in engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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