In “Robot Futures,” he reveals the social forces and technology propelling us toward a robotic-enhanced life and turns a sensitive eye on the complex human issues that lie ahead. Robots will make ever-larger leaps past their blood-and-guts parents; their connection to the Internet will pack them with information no mortal can contain, and their minds will make independent decisions thanks to artificial intelligence. They will see us, hear us and respond to us; they will recognize a face, understand a firm handshake and perceive our smiles. But their presence in our offices, factories and homes, in stores and on sidewalks, will force humans to confront a difficult era of adaptation. “We have invented a new species,” Nourbakhsh writes, “and the question that remains is, how will we share our world with these new creatures, and how will this new ecology change who we are and how we act?”
Defining a robot, however, is tricky. Certainly not all of them reflect the humanoid shape of C3PO in “Star Wars.” They can be designed as a mundane-looking camera eye or a snake for military surveillance. Perhaps a better way to understand their essence is to zero in on what they can do — the scope is mind-boggling and sometimes disquieting. Nourbakhsh stresses that robots form a kind of bridge between the digital universe and the physical world in a way humans simply can’t. He points to a tiny, flying robot that finds an open window in a building, slips inside, maps the interior and instantly publishes the maps online.
The evolving intelligence of robots is linked to three key advances: Robots are gaining the ability to perceive their environment, make internal decisions and then take action. Consider the case of a local fast-food restaurant. Suppose you’re a regular customer who almost always orders the same sandwich and fries. When you pull into the parking lot, the store-bot will recognize you and send an order to the cook, and by the time you reach the counter, your food will be waiting. This robot already exists. Called Hyperactive Bob, it went into action five years ago, capturing customer data through a computer vision system tied to cameras around the restaurant’s perimeter. It’s true that such efficiency benefits the customer and the restaurant. “Even privacy advocates have trouble finding fault with Bob,” Nourbakhsh writes. “The computer system is only recognizing a car and making a guess about what the car’s occupants will order.”
But robotic vision gets disturbing in other potential applications. In their lust to know their customers, companies are eager to capture detailed information about shoppers’ behavior. Nourbakhsh predicts that in 20 years, computer vision will be so refined that stores will be able to watch and interpret your behavior with stunning accuracy: how you walk, where you linger, in what direction you gaze, what products you touch, where exactly your eyes settle when you look around, how excited you are when discussing an item with a friend, what expression you make when you look at the price. “As sensing technologies progress,” the author writes, “the boundaries of privacy will be regularly challenged anew.”
As robots become smarter and make their own decisions, our relationship with them will get ever more complicated. Do we blame them or their overseers for bad behavior, an issue that arises today with the U.S. deployment of drones? The proliferation of robots in everyday life — in different sizes, shapes and personalities — will baffle us and test our patience. With the increasing availability of build-your-own kits, slews of people will make robots, just as today they make personal Web pages. But while the jungle of home pages disrupts only the digital world, this zoo of robots will overrun the physical landscape. “When your neighbor down the street makes [a robot] and sets it free,” the author writes, “you may have to wrestle it out of your vegetable garden the next day.”
In a world populated by machines that perceive and think, Nourbakhsh wonders whether humans shouldn’t accord robots empathy and moral standing. He recounts a bizarre incident involving his undergraduate research robot, Vagabond. When he was navigating Vagabond through the quadrangle at Stanford University, he lost sight of it momentarily. Then, coming around a corner, he saw a woman blocking its path and a man in cowboy boots kicking the robot, announcing, “I’m still smarter.”
Researchers are far from understanding humans’ emotional response to robots, Nourbakhsh writes, but that day he had an insight that will be relevant for generations: “It was a turning point in my realization that robots will cause human behavior that we may find very surprising indeed.”
is nonfiction editor of Book World.