How I Became a Dreaded Zionist Robotic Spy, or – Why We Need a Privacy Standard for Robots

It all began in a horribly innocent fashion, as such things often do. The Center for Middle East Studies in Brown University, near my home, has held a “public discussion” about the futures of Palestinians in Israel. Naturally, as a Israeli living in the States, I’m still very much interested in this area, so I took a look at the panelist list and discovered immediately they all came from the same background and with the same point of view: Israel was the colonialist oppressor and that was pretty much all there was to it in their view.

MES 3-3-16 Critical Conversations.gif

Quite frankly, this seemed bizarre to me: how can you have a discussion about the future of a people in a region, without understanding the complexities of their geopolitical situation? How can you talk about the future in a war-torn region like the Middle East, when nobody speaks about security issues, or provides the state of mind of the Israeli citizens or government? In short, how can you have a discussion when all the panelists say exactly the same thing?

So I decided to do something about it, and therein lies my downfall.

I am the proud co-founder of TeleBuddy – a robotics services start-up company that operates telepresence robots worldwide. If you want to reach somewhere far away – Israel, California, or even China – we can place a robot there so that instead of wasting time and health flying, you can just log into the robot and be there immediately. We mainly use Double Robotics‘ robots, and since I had one free for use, I immediately thought we could use the robots to bring a representative of the Israeli point of view to the panel – in a robotic body.

Things began moving in a blur from that point. I obtained permission from Prof. Beshara Doumani, who organized the panel, to bring a robot to the place. StandWithUs – an organization that disseminates information about Israel in the United States – has graciously agreed to send a representative by the name of Shahar Azani to log into the robot, and so it happened that I came to the event with possibly the first ever robotic-diplomat.

2016-03-03 17.48.13

Things went very well in the event itself. While my robotic friend was not allowed to speak from the stage, he talked with people in the venue before the event began, and had plenty of fun. Some of the people in the event seemed excited about the robot. Others were reluctant to approach him, so he talked with other people instead. The entire thing was very civil, as other participants in the panel later remarked. I really thought we found a good use for the robot, and even suggested to the organizers that next time they could use TeleBuddy’s robots to ‘teleport’ a different representative – maybe a Palestinian – to their event. I went home happily, feeling I made just a little bit of a difference in the world and contributed to an actual discussion between the two sides in a conflict.

A few days later, Open Hillel published a statement about the event, as follows –

“In a dystopian twist, the latest development in the attack on open discourse by right-wing pro-Israel groups appears to be the use of robots to police academic discourse. At a March 3, 2016 event about Palestinian citizens of Israel sponsored by Middle East Studies at Brown University, a robot attended and accosted students. The robot used an iPad to display a man from StandWithUs, which receives funding from Israel’s government.

Before the event began, students say, the robot approached students and harassed them about why they were attending the event. Students declined to engage with this bizarre form of intimidation and ignored the robot. At the event itself, the robot and the StandWithUs affiliate remained in the back. During the question and answer session, the man briefly left the robot’s side to ask a question.

It is not yet known whether this was the first use of a robot to monitor Israel-Palestine discourse on campus. … Open Hillel opposes the attempts of groups like StandWithUs to monitor students and faculty. As a student-led grassroots campaign supported by young alumni, professors, and rabbis, Open Hillel rejects any attempt to stifle or target student or faculty activists. The use of robots for purposes of surveillance endangers the ability of students and faculty to learn and discuss this issue. We call upon outside groups such as StandWithUs to conduct themselves in accordance with the academic principles of open discourse and debate.”

 

 

I later met accidentally with some of the students who were in the event, and asked them why they believed the robot was used for surveillance, or to harass students. In return, they accused me of being a spy for the Israeli government. Why? Obviously, because I operated a “surveillance drone” on American soil. That’s perfect circular logic.

 

Lessons

There are lessons aplenty to be obtained from this bizarre incident, but the one that strikes me in particular is that you can’t easily ignore existing cultural sentiments and paradigms without taking a hit in the process. The robot was obviously not a surveillance drone, or meant for surveillance of any kind, but Open Hillel managed to rebrand it by relying on fears that have deep-roots in the American public. They did it to promote their own goals of getting some PR, and they did it so skillfully that I can’t help but applaud them for it. Quite frankly, I wish their PR guys were working for me.

That said, there are issues here that need to be dealt with if telepresence robots ever want to become part of critical discussions. The fear that the robot may be recording or taking pictures in an event is justified – a tech-savvy person controlling the robot could certainly find a way to do that. However, I can’t help but feel that there are less-clever ways to accomplish that, such as using one’s smartphone, or the covert Memoto Lifelogging camera. If you fear being recorded on public, you should know that telepresence robots are probably the least of your concerns.

 

Conclusions

The honest truth is that this is a brand new field for everyone involved. How should robots behave at conferences? Nobody knows. How should they talk with human beings at panels or public events? Nobody can tell yet. How can we make human beings feel more comfortable when they are in the same perimeter with a suit-wearing robot that can potentially record everything it sees? Nobody has any clue whatsoever.

These issues should be taken into consideration in any venture to involve robots in the public sphere.

It seems to me that we need some kind of a standard, to be developed in a collaboration between ethicists, social scientists and roboticists, which will ensure a high level of data encryption for telepresence robots and an assurance that any data collected by the robot will be deleted on the spot.

We need, in short, to develop proper robotic etiquette.

And if we fail to do that, then it shouldn’t really surprise anyone when telepresence robots are branded as “surveillance drones” used by Zionist spies.

Advertisements

Four Robot Myths it’s Time We Let Go of

A week ago I lectured in front of an exceedingly intelligent group of young people in Israel – “The President’s Scientists and Inventors of the Future”, as they’re called. I decided to talk about the future of robotics and their uses in society, and as an introduction to the lecture I tried to dispel a few myths about robots that I’ve heard repeatedly from older audiences. Perhaps not so surprisingly, the kids were just as disenchanted with these myths as I was. All the same, I’m writing the five robot myths here, for all the ‘old’ people (20+ years old) who are not as well acquainted with technology as our kids.

As a side note: I lectured in front of the Israeli teenagers about the future of robotics, even though I’m currently residing in the United States. That’s another thing robots are good for!

12489892_10206643949390298_612958140_o.jpg
I’m lecturing as a tele-presence robot to a group of bright youths in Israel, at the Technion.

 

First Myth: Robots must be shaped as Humanoids

Ever since Karel Capek’s first play about robots, the general notion in the public was that robots have to resemble humans in their appearance: two legs, two hands and a head with a brain. Fortunately, most sci-fi authors stop at that point and do not add genitalia as well. The idea that robots have to look just like us is, quite frankly, ridiculous and stems from an overt appreciation of our own form.

Today, this myth is being dispelled rapidly. Autonomous vehicles – basically robots designed to travel on the roads – obviously look nothing like human beings. Even telepresence robots manufacturers have despaired of notions about robotic arms and legs, and are producing robots that often look more like a broomstick on wheels. Robotic legs are simply too difficult to operate, too costly in energy, and much too fragile with the materials we have today.

telepresence_options_robots.png
Telepresence robots – no longer shaped like human beings. No arms, no legs, definitely no genitalia. Source: Neurala.

 

Second Myth: Robots have a Computer for a Brain

This myth is interesting in that it’s both true and false. Obviously, robots today are operated by artificial intelligence run on a computer. However, the artificial intelligence itself is vastly different from the simple and rules-dependent ones we’ve had in the past. The state-of-the-art AI engines are based on artificial neural networks: basically a very simple simulation of a small part of a biological brain.

The big breakthrough with artificial neural network came about when Andrew Ng and other researchers in the field showed they could use cheap graphical processing units (GPUs) to run sophisticated simulations of artificial neural networks. Suddenly, artificial neural networks appeared everywhere, for a fraction of their previous price. Today, all the major IT companies are using them, including Google, Facebook, Baidu and others.

Although artificial neural networks were reserved for IT in recent years, they are beginning to direct robot activity as well. By employing artificial neural networks, robots can start making sense of their surroundings, and can even be trained for new tasks by watching human beings do them instead of being programmed manually. In effect, robots employing this new technology can be thought of as having (exceedingly) rudimentary biological brains, and in the next decade can be expected to reach an intelligence level similar to that of a dog or a chimpanzee. We will be able to train them for new tasks simply by instructing them verbally, or even showing them what we mean.

 

This video clip shows how an artificial neural network AI can ‘solve’ new situations and learn from games, until it gets to a point where it’s better than any human player.

 

Admittedly, the companies using artificial neural networks today are operating large clusters of GPUs that take up plenty of space and energy to operate. Such clusters cannot be easily placed in a robot’s ‘head’, or wherever its brain is supposed to be. However, this problem is easily solved when the third myth is dispelled.

 

Third Myth: Robots as Individual Units

This is yet another myth that we see very often in sci-fi. The Terminator, Asimov’s robots, R2D2 – those are all autonomous and individual units, operating by themselves without any connection to The Cloud. Which is hardly surprising, considering there was no information Cloud – or even widely available internet – back in the day when those tales and scripts were written.

Robots in the near future will function much more like a team of ants, than as individual units. Any piece of information that one robot acquires and deems important, will be uploaded to the main servers, analyzed and shared with the other robots as needed. Robots will, in effect, learn from each other in a process that will increase their intelligence, experience and knowledge exponentially over time. Indeed, shared learning will result in an acceleration of AI development rate, since the more robots we have in society – the smarter they will become. And the smarter they will become – the more we will want to assimilate them in our daily lives.

The Tesla cars are a good example for this sort of mutual learning and knowledge sharing. In the words of Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO –

“The whole Tesla fleet operates as a network. When one car learns something, they all learn it.”

tesla-model-x-elon-musk.jpg
Elon Musk and the Tesla Model X: the cars that learn from each other. Source: AP and Business Insider.

Fourth Myth: Robots can’t make Moral Decisions

In my experience, many people still adhere to this myth, under the belief that robots do not have consciousness, and thus cannot make moral decisions. This is a false correlation: I can easily program an autonomous vehicle to stop before hitting human beings on the road, even without the vehicle enjoying any kind of consciousness. Moral behavior, in this case, is the product of programming.

Things get complicated when we realize that autonomous vehicles, in particular, will have to make novel moral decisions that no human being was ever required to make in the past. What should an autonomous vehicle do, for example, when it loses control over its brakes, and finds itself rushing to collision with a man crossing the road? Obviously, it should veer to the side of the road and hit the wall. But what should it do if it calculates that its ‘driver’ will be killed as a result of the collision into the wall? Who is more important in this case? And what happens if two people cross the road instead of one? What if one of those people is a pregnant woman?

These questions demonstrate that it is hardly enough to program an autonomous vehicle for specific encounters. Rather, we need to program into it (or train it to obey) a set of moral rules – heuristics – according to which the robot will interpret any new occurrence and reach a decision accordingly.

And so, robots must make moral decisions.

 

Conclusion

As I wrote in the beginning of this post, the youth and the ‘techies’ are already aware of how out-of-date these myths are. Nobody as yet, though, knows where the new capabilities of robots will take us when they are combined together. What will our society look like, when robots are everywhere, sharing their intelligence, learning from everything they see and hear, and making moral decisions not from an individual unit perception (as we human beings do), but from an overarching perception spanning insights and data from millions of units at the same time?

This is the way we are heading to – a super-intelligence composed of a combination of incredibly sophisticated AI, with robots as its eyes, ears and fingertips. It’s a frightening future, to be sure. How could we possibly control such a super-intelligence?

That’s a topic for a future post. In the meantime, let me know if there are any other myths about robots you think it’s time to ditch!