The Robot Revolution Is Underway, But Are We Ready?

Autonomous vacuum cleaners are just the beginning. As time goes by, artificially intelligent machines will play ever greater roles in our lives. Which is why now is the time to start asking some important questions.

This article was not written by a robot.
This article was not written by a robot.
Laurence Devillers

PARIS â€" AlphaGo"s recent victory over Lee Sedol, one of the world’s best Go players, has people once again debating the merits and potential perils of intelligent machines.

The computer program, developed by London-based artificial intelligence firm Google DeepMind, beat the South Korean Go champ 4-1 in a televised contest reminiscent of Deep Blue's victory, two decades earlier, against Russian chess master Garry Kasparov.

But as exciting as the development may be, we should be careful not to let the accomplishment distort our vision of what these robots â€"which are increasingly present in our lives â€" will be capable of.

Robots and connected objects will integrate our homes, just as cellphones and televisions have. We already have vacuum cleaners capable of detecting obstacles and moving around autonomously. Soon, we will be able to talk with robot assistants, in the same way that voice recognition technology already allows us to speak to our phones.

Robots have their limits, however. Machines owe their artificial intelligence to computer models designed by humans. If it is programmed to detect and recognize emotional and conversational signs to adapt to humans, or even try to be funny, this machine can seem welcoming. Robots struggle, on the other hand, to glean concepts such as emotions and dialogue strategies from large data bodies, as these concepts are not as easy to formalize.

Children learn by experimenting with the world. For a robot, this task is extremely difficult because it has no instinct or intentions with which to make decisions. A machine cannot autonomously build new representations when faced with a new task. Robots might be able to say "I love you," but they don't actually feel anything. They have no awareness.

Virtual love â€" Photo: Joamm Tall

Machines will be more and more autonomous thanks to sophisticated artificial intelligence programs. But they will not be capable of feelings, creativity and imagination in the way humans are. A machine cannot feel "happy" because it does not have phenomenal awareness. Nor can it "understand" the concept of happiness. When AlphaGo beat Lee Sedol, the machine did not understand what it was doing.

Assistants and caregivers

Faced with questions with no answer, humans are significantly better at finding solutions than machines. On the other hand, machines can certainly outperform us for specific tasks. In some cases they can even accomplish things that are simply impossible for humans.

Machines can be stronger than humans, for example, when it comes to completing complex calculations â€" and quickly. They can be designed to have incredible memories and are thus better at answering encyclopedic questions, or recognizing people. It is in our collective interest to take advantage of these capacities, without any fear.

By 2060, 32% of the French population will be over the age of 60, an increase of 80% in about 50 years. The proportion of chronic diseases will go hand in hand with the aging of the population. Robots â€" sometimes in humanoid forms, to better move around in our homes â€" could be very useful in this context: as assists, monitors, even to keep people company. The machine-human relation will likely be triangular, with robots acting as a go-between for family members and medical staff.

Research already shows some promising results. Initial studies on interactions between robots and the elderly, carried out with occupational therapists from a French association called Approche, as well as with gerontologists from the "living lab" of the Broca hospital, in Paris, suggest a fair amount of interest in new kinds of human-machine collaboration. Interest is likely to grow further still as time goes on and people enter retirement age with relatively greater knowledge of computing and technology.

How real is too real?

Creating an emotional relationship with robots is no longer science-fiction. Resemblance with humans or animals, facial impressions, tones of voice, or even the childlike or teddy bear aspects of some robots arouse emotions. Humans also project emotional relations with non-humanoid robots, devoid of emotional abilities, or even vacuum cleaning robots. Some people give them names â€" proof that humans project identities on robots. Attachment is an emotional bond that results from joint history.

You don't mean that â€" Photo: Betsy Weber

The Media Equation theory put forth in 1996 by Stanford University's Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves explains that we apply the same social expectations when we communicate with artificial entities. Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human behavioral features to objects. In this way, an object that appears to feel pain, like the Atlas robot, developed by Boston Dynamics, can generate empathy.

Thanks to brain imaging, researchers know that humans can feel empathy towards mistreated robots, albeit without the same intensity as they do for mistreated humans.

This kind of emotional and social interaction between humans and robots gives rise to several ethical questions. How humanlike should developers be allowed to make robots? How autonomous should the machines be with regards to decision making? What about the "six-million-dollar-man" scenario? Should there be limits on the use of robot technology to repair or enhance human beings? For now, few studies have attempted to answer those questions.

The reality is that over time, we will see more and more autonomous, complex entities that can adapt to their environment. And the emergence of those robots will present a number of legal and social challenges â€" questions we ought to start posing and attempting to answer now. How do we adapt our education systems so that we can create work around these machines? What kinds of new jobs are we talking about? For what tasks do we want to create these artificial entities? And how do we ensure that robots help us, rather than simply put us out of work?

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!