Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Do We Need a Sociology of Robots?

It took me a while to appreciate that Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics were not primarily about engineering.  Rather, they presumed that, because robots shared the social world with humans, robot-makers should strive to endow them with a code of normative behavior.  Whether or not such a “normative code” could be “engineered” into “software code” remains a debatable issue (one for which Lawrence Lessig has had much to say);  but, since Asimov had confined himself to fiction, he could presume this to be the case and then use his stories and novels to pursue the likely consequences.

Dr. Markus Waibel of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich is not interested in the world of fiction.  He is interested in a decidedly likely future in which robots will be part of everyday human life.  What will that part be?  Waibel plans to approach that question through a project called RoboEarth, which he described to Mark Ward, Technology Correspondent for BBC News, in a story posted this morning:

"Most current robots see the world their own way and there's very little standardisation going on," he said. Most researchers using robots typically develop their own way for that machine to build up a corpus of data about the world.

This, said Dr Waibel, made it very difficult for roboticists to share knowledge or for the field to advance rapidly because everyone started off solving the same problems.

By contrast, RoboEarth hopes to start showing how the information that robots discover about the world can be defined so any other robot can find it and use it.

RoboEarth will be a communication system and a database, he said.

In the database will be maps of places that robots work, descriptions of objects they encounter and instructions for how to complete distinct actions.

The human equivalent would be Wikipedia, said Dr Waibel.

"Wikipedia is something that humans use to share knowledge, that everyone can edit, contribute knowledge to and access," he said. "Something like that does not exist for robots."

Waibel clearly has some sorting-out to do.  He does not seem to appreciate the distinction that social theorists draw that separates objective, subjective, and social worlds;  so Waibel thinks he can reduce everything to storing and communicating data.  Thus, it is unclear whether his verb phrase “see the world” is merely an overly-enthusiastic metaphor or a serious failure to grasp the subtleties behind bringing order to sensory signals.  Similarly, he seems to view Wikipedia as a data resource maintained by multiple individuals, rather than an ongoing process of social interactions that sometime take a turn for the pathological.

Asimov projected a future that remains beyond our grasp.  However, in writing the history of that future, so to speak, he envisaged agents who anticipated serious consequences and tried to plan for them.  This made him far more utopian than, for example, Lessig, who recognizes, along with James Madison (or possibly Alexander Hamilton), that men are not angels and are definitely not the puppets of a benevolent author.  Thus far at least, his speculations have not led him onto the turf of social theory;  but, in the face of Waibel’s aspirations, it is probably time to start exploring that turf.  After all, the question is not whether robots are capable of sharing data as self-motivated agents;  clearly they can do this,  The more important question is what they will do with that capability, and it is about time for those in “real-world” robotics to take that question as serious as Asimov did.

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