Vote Now for the Future of Robotics

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The European Union's Robotics4EU initiative aims to give the public a voice on how comfortable they are with certain types of robots and artificial intelligence.

A few weeks ago I demonstrated how an artificial intelligence could now mimic skills and abilities that were once the exclusive purview of humans, like creativity. And while the detective story that an AI wrote alongside me was a little bit on the strange side, it did demonstrate what might one day be possible as the technology continues to evolve. But that also means that we need to be careful, because AIs could very easily evolve into areas that we may not like, or with morals that are counter to our belief systems.

The White House has at least tentatively acknowledged this danger, calling for the establishment of an AI Bill of Rights through its Office of Science and Technology Policy. That effort is designed to democratize AI as much as possible, letting the public not only see the state of AI as it develops, but also giving people a voice in how and what AI technology develops.

Democratizing AI development is a good idea, but even so, I had a hard time thinking of a practical way an effort like that could work. Thankfully, the European Union found a way. The EU is working with a group called Robotics4EU, which is comprised of various organizations that deal with robotics technology in several European countries, to give the public a voice in the development of a variety of robots driven by AI.

The project is holding the first ever robotic vote to determine general attitudes and concerns regarding different types of robots. And anyone can cast a ballot, not just those who live in the European Union. The idea is to present a series of very different types of intelligent robots, and then have the public vote on things like how helpful they think each robot would be for humans, or how afraid they would feel if they bumped into a similar robot on the street. Once the results are finalized, they will be shared with the companies making the robots and the AI that drives them, as well as the governments that will be regulating the technology.

For the first vote, there are nine robotic candidates to consider. All of them are driven by AI, but perform very different missions. Some of the robots that you can vote for have serious tasks, like the Drone-in-a-box by NAUST Robotics, which can automatically deploy itself, taking to the air to patrol in rural areas. Its mission is to protect livestock or food crops from predators and pests. Others are a little bit more whimsical, like Butty by Capra Robotics, which rolls along city sidewalks picking up cigarette butts and other trash with a long, elephant-like trunk.

Butty is a personal favorite of mine, but I suspect that two other robots on the survey will get the lion’s share of attention, for better or worse. 

The first is the Swab Robot by Lifeline Robotics. In an era where we are all getting used to getting swabbed to check for diseases and other pathogens like COVID-19, tasking a robot to do that automatically seems like a great idea. It frees up medical personnel for other tasks and also protects the privacy of the person being tested. What I suspect the disconnect will be for a lot of people with the Swab Robot is having to stand inside a little enclosure while a supposedly intelligent, “force sensitive robot” gently sticks a probe into the back of a patient’s throat and proceeds to collect a sample. I’m pretty forward thinking and a big fan of technology, but no thank you on that one. Just, no.

The other really interesting robot in the survey is EVE by Halodi Robotics. EVE is what most people envision when we think of a true robot, a human-like being with enough artificial intelligence to take on human tasks, in this case helping older people or those with mobility issues. According to the company that makes EVE, the robot is not confined to use within a predefined space, but can instead move about any environment. A video shows EVE helping an older person get around their home, carrying their bags, pushing a wheelchair and even fetching a bottle of water from a refrigerator. I could totally envision EVE units being deployed in hospitals as a sort of auxiliary staff member helping patients get comfortable and taking care of some of their non-medical needs, freeing up the overworked humans to perform other duties.

If you want to see what some cutting edge robots can really do, and have a voice in their future, then you have until October 15 to cast your ballot.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys