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Gap Between Real and Fictional Robots Not as Narrow as It Should

Residing in one of the bizarre neighborhoods of the internet is the webpage of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, whose purpose is, in NYTimes’ Catherine Rampell words, to “research a ‘Terminator’-like scenario in which supercomputers rise up and destroy their human overlords.” How far exactly are we from such scenario? This month, according to BBC “‘Terminator’ self-assembling cube robots” have been revealed by MIT.

But don’t freak out just yet. In the Terminator films, an android is made of a certain material that can re-assemble itself, assuming different shapes when in liquid state. What the researchers at MIT made, despite impressive, is merely a conceptual project: a set of cubes that can configure themselves in different patterns, using internal flywheels for movement and magnets for connection. What it does best is providing further evidence for how far reality and fiction are in robotics.

Although the state-of-the-art in automation does pose an economical challenge, there’s too much discourse about the threat of intelligent machines, and not enough work on actually creating them. Of course robots are threatening, but so are gunpowder, uranium, and rocket science. There are many examples of the use of technology for bad purposes, and of the struggle to keep them off the hands of unprepared individuals, but if one looks at history without cynical bias, one can’t help noticing how much it have improved our overall quality of life.

Here’s a very short list of robots that would be mostly welcome, and that are far away from reality. (1) Housekeeper. It’s only threat would be perhaps giving too much time for the owners to compose bad songs to eventually become mainstream. (2) Firefighter. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, in 2012 there were 83 on-duty fatalities in the country. Wouldn’t it be nice if dangerous rescuing missions were performed by an army of robots? (3) Car-repairer. (4) Loan mower. (5) Farmer. (6) Cab-driver. (7) Personal dance instructor.

The problem of robots turning against humans is nonsense — now and for many decades to come — and any honest person who ever tried to do something on Artificial Intelligence will confirm. Let science fiction people wonder about it, but let’s not get seriously over dramatic yet. As for the economic threat, it is real but only because we are in such rudimentary times that so many human individuals still have to make a living doing repetitive, boring tasks — precisely the things robots are very competitive at; and should actually be doing.

Intelligent robots are a needed, welcome future. And criticism is not only premature, it’s damaging, for it focus attention on unrealistic downsides, thus pushing that future further away.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)