Good Robot! The Upside to Automation

Cyberdyne on the march.
Cyberdyne on the march.

Sure, robots might kill us. They also could rescue us from land mines, natural disasters and collapsing buildings.

Aerial drones can be used to locate disaster survivors – or to pepper-spray protesters. Their earthbound robotic cousins can help rescue victims of events like a building’s collapse – or make fresh victims on the battlefield.

Robots’ duality – their ability to help or harm people – isn’t lost on their evangelists. Debates are building over the anticipated arrival of lethal autonomous robots, for example, and unmanned armed vehicles.

“If robots can squeeze the handle of a steering wheel and manipulate the air conditioning controls on your Ford Escort, they can also squeeze the trigger of an AK-47 and a grenade launcher,” points out Illah Nourbakhsh, robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Meanwhile, a growing number of robotic applications are meant to enhance or even save human lives – and protect the environment. Robots can be lifeguards, virus killers or firefighters. “If they can make androids that can manipulate anything that humans can … that’s where it gets exciting,” Nourbakhsh says.

But companies working to create robots for good aren’t ready to relinquish – even if tongue in cheek – the possibility that they could turn evil. A Japanese company, Cyberdyne, has picked a name that references the creator of evil artificial life forms in the Terminator movies, even as it builds high-tech helpers for people.

It has developed what it calls the world’s first cyborg-type robot. A stark white, motorized suit with a control console, the Hal robot – which, unlike its fictional namesake in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, isn’t sentient and able to plan humans’ doom – helps those who have lost function in their lower limbs. It works either as a rehabilitation tool or as a leg substitute. The body frame, or exoskeleton, reads the user’s bioelectrical brain signals to figure out and respond to his or her desired movement.

While Cyberdyne awaits approval from the Japanese government to start selling its robotic suits, a product offering a similar solution – but also has a wartime application – is already being produced and sold by Ekso Bionics. These mechanized legs, called the Ekso GT, are built for assisted injury rehabilitation. They got their start in response to a call by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (Darpa’s) Warrior Web effort, which seeks to use technology to reduce musculoskeletal injuries.

Although the bionic legs are primarily intended to prevent injuries that soldiers incur from the increasing amount of weight they must carry in the field, Darpa’s website says they also augment a soldier’s “warfighter effectiveness”. Spun off from a robotics program at the University of California at Berkeley and buoyed by early defense contracts, Esko now says focused on the rehabilitation robot market, expected to grow from $203.3m in 2014 to $1.1bn by 2021.

Researchers hope robotic enhancements like Esko’s, part of a group of efforts called “human-robot teaming,” could one day also offer major benefits for the elderly population. The technology isn’t ready yet, but here’s an example of how it could work in concept: “The robot-human team can ensure that person gets their exercise, puts their full effort into walking,” said Nourbakhsh, who is also the author of Parenting for Technology Futures. “If they’re about to fall, that robotic exoskeleton can energize and stop them from falling.”

Restored mobility, however, isn’t the first application most people think of when they think of robots, industry execs say. “The top three things we get asked is, ‘Do you have a robot that can get me beer, clean my house, shovel my driveway?’” says Adam Gryfe, director of strategic initiatives at ClearPathRobotics, a Canadian robotics company. “You know, those are valid within their own rights as well. If they want to spend time with their family instead of shoveling their driveway or cleaning their house, that’s a humanitarian effort, too.”

ClearPath’s main focus, however, isn’t on mechanical house slaves. Instead, it is dedicated to eliminating the world’s “dull, dirty and dangerous” jobs, Gryfe says, such as bulldozing and drilling operations in mining, for instance.

The company name itself is a reference to its early work on landmine detection and removal. The capital-intensive nature of that work – think exploding robots – pushed it to quickly develop affordable research platforms to sell that could then be tricked out in unique ways depending on the needs of their customers.

Over the years, ClearPath platforms have been used to explore lunar rover systems, autonomous mining and environmental reclamation potentials, Gryfe said. Orebo University in Sweden, which received a robot through ClearPath’s PartnerBot grant program, now uses the retrofitted device to crawl landfills in search of methane leaks to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

One challenge with the robots-for-sustainability idea, though, is that – beyond military and industrial applications – there might not be large enough markets for many of the applications that could most benefit humanity. After all, many of the communities with the biggest needs don’t have the money to buy pricey robotics.

Some groups are starting to work out ways to bring high-dollar robots to communities that can’t afford them. In landmine-pocked Cambodia, safe bomb disposal assistance may be on the way thanks to a collaboration between Villanova University in Pennsylvania and the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, a nonprofit aiming to improving lives in landmine-impacted countries around the world.

“There are bomb squads and police departments and municipalities in the developing world that need this technology,” says Garrett Clayton, associate professor of mechanical engineering who is leading the R&D effort at Villanova. “Typically right now you have a bomb tech walk up to what they want to look at – an IED (improvised explosive device), let’s say – and they have to directly interact with it, without the equipment we have in the developed world.”

In 2010, nearly 300 people were killed or injured by landmines and unexploded ammunition in the country, according to the nonprofit Cambodian Mine Action Center. While the US Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement funds the development of explosive ordnance disposal robots, Clayton’s team hopes to commercialize the devices with a manufacturing plant in Phnom Penh and by crowdsourcing funds via Kickstarter.

“We’re still working out the details on that, but the number we’ve been looking at is $200,000,” Clayton said. “That would allow us to start an assembly plant in Cambodia. It might not be entirely manufactured in Cambodia, but we certainly are going to do as much as we can and import some of the more high-tech components.” With a $10,000 price tag, each machine will cost a fraction of similar devices now in use, which can be priced at tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There’s no question robots can be used for good, as well as evil. Still, the question remains: could robots intended for good turn, Ex Machina-style, on humans?

“In the wrong hands, anything can be a deadly technology,” ClearPath’s Gryfe says. “Robotics is difficult because it’s not well understood yet. It’s not well regulated. Right now it’s up to the people who are building and selling the robots to be ethical and be the moral compass for the industry.”