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Beware Robot Smog

If the thought of autonomous robots and personal drones ferrying your packages and morning coffee to you sounds exciting, then consider the unintended consequence of “robot smog,” the term used by Illah Nourbakhsh, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon, to describe the noise pollution and awkward social interactions that accompany a future populated by these machines.

Nourbakhsh recently wrote about this potential problem in The New Yorker, and it seemed appropriate to consider it this week, given the number of robots and robotics kits that were stashed under Christmas trees. So, engineers, before you consider launching your sparrow-sized drone or humanoid helper robot into the world, consider how a fleet of these things will look moving through a public park.

According to the author, autonomous robots represent a new era of human-robot interaction, “one in which we regularly find ourselves face to face with robots in both public and private space.”

Worse, the visual clutter and noise pollution will “transform the worst effects of digital devices into real-world annoyances that cannot be silenced or hidden in a coat pocket.”

Even though robots will require us to interact with them on a constant basis, the gestures and idioms that facilitate human-to-human interaction will be of limited use. The knowledge, sensors, and capabilities of robots will be unknown to us, since there is no federal standard for how robots must act. The incidental interactions we’ll have will be awkward: Can the robot understand my speech? Is it making eye contact? If I curse at it, will it embarrass me, or get out of my way? Is the robot staring at me because it wants to interact, or is it just waiting for me to move?

Even more disconcerting, all of these robots will be connected to vast stores of knowledge in the cloud. As Nourbakhsh puts it, “I know little about the robot, but it knows everything about me.”

Source: The New Yorker

About Brian Albright

Brian Albright is a contributing editor to Digital Engineering. Send e-mail about this article to DE-Editors@digitaleng.news.