Elon Musk announced a humanoid robot designed to help with those repetitive, boring tasks people hate doing. Musk suggested it could run to the grocery store for you, but presumably it would handle any number of tasks involving manual labor.
Predictably, social media filled with references to a string of dystopian sci-fi movies about robots where everything goes horribly wrong.
As troubling as the robot futures in movies like I, Robot, The Terminator and others are, it’s the underlying technologies of real humanoid robots – and the intent behind them – that should be cause for concern.
A humanoid robot with a black head and shoulders and white body with the name Tesla across its chest
Musk’s robot is being developed by Tesla. It’s a seeming departure from the company’s car-making business, until you consider that Tesla isn’t a typical automotive manufacturer. The so-called “Tesla Bot” is a concept for a sleek, 125-pound humanlike robot that will incorporate Tesla’s automotive artificial intelligence and autopilot technologies to plan and follow routes, navigate traffic – in this case, pedestrians – and avoid obstacles.
Dystopian sci-fi overtones aside, the plan makes sense, albeit within Musk’s business strategy. The built environment is made by humans, for humans. And as Musk argued at the Tesla Bot’s announcement, successful advanced technologies are going to have to learn to navigate it in the same ways people do.
Yet Tesla’s cars and robots are merely the visible products of a much broader plan aimed at creating a future where advanced technologies liberate humans from our biological roots by blending biology and technology. As a researcher who studies the ethical and socially responsible development and use of emerging technologies, I find that this plan raises concerns that transcend speculative sci-fi fears of super-smart robots.
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A man with big plans
Self-driving cars, interplanetary rockets and brain-machine interfaces are steps toward the future Musk envisions where technology is humanity’s savior. In this future, energy will be cheap, abundant and sustainable; people will work in harmony with intelligent machines and even merge with them; and humans will become an interplanetary species.
It’s a future that, judging by Musk’s various endeavors, will be built on a set of underlying interconnected technologies that include sensors, actuators, energy and data infrastructures, systems integration and substantial advances in computer power. Together, these make a formidable toolbox for creating transformative technologies.
Musk imagines humans ultimately transcending our evolutionary heritage through technologies that are beyond-human, or “super” human. But before technology can become superhuman, it first needs to be human – or at least be designed to thrive in a human-designed world.
This make-tech-more-human approach to innovation is what’s underpinning the technologies in Tesla’s cars, including the extensive use of optical cameras. These, when connected to an AI “brain,” are intended to help the vehicles autonomously navigate road systems that are, in Musk’s words, “designed for biological neural nets with optical imagers” – in other words, people. In Musk’s telling, it’s a small step from human-inspired “robots on wheels” to humanlike robots on legs.
Easier said than done
Tesla’s “full self-driving” technology, which includes the dubiously named Autopilot, is a starting point for the developers of the Tesla Bot. Impressive as this technology is, it’s proving to be less than fully reliable. Crashes and fatalities associated with Tesla’s Autopilot mode – the latest having to do with the algorithms struggling to recognize parked emergency vehicles — are calling into question the wisdom of releasing the tech into the wild so soon.
This track record doesn’t bode well for humanlike robots that rely on the same technology. Yet this isn’t just a case of getting the technology right. Tesla’s Autopilot glitches are exacerbated by human behavior. For example, some Tesla drivers have treated their tech-enhanced cars as though they are fully autonomous vehicles and failed to pay sufficient attention to driving. Could something similar happen with the Tesla Bot?
Tesla Bot’s ‘orphan risks’
In my work on socially beneficial technology innovation, I’m especially interested in orphan risks – risks that are hard to quantify and easy to overlook and yet inevitably end up tripping up innovators. My colleagues and I work with entrepreneurs and others on navigating these types of challenges through the Risk Innovation Nexus, an initiative of the Arizona State University Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute and Global Futures Laboratory.
The Tesla Bot comes with a whole portfolio of orphan risks. These include possible threats to privacy and autonomy as the bot collects, shares and acts on potentially sensitive information; challenges associated with how people are likely to think about and respond to humanoid robots; potential misalignments between ethical or ideological perspectives – for example, in crime control or policing civil protests; and more. These are challenges that are rarely covered in the training that engineers receive, and yet overlooking them can spell disaster.
While the Tesla Bot may seem benign – or even a bit of a joke – if it’s to be beneficial as well as commercially successful, its developers, investors, future consumers and others need to be asking tough questions about how it might threaten what’s important to them and how to navigate these threats.
These threats may be as specific as people making unauthorized modifications that increase the robot’s performance – making it move faster than its designers intended, for example – without thinking about the risks, or as general as the technology being weaponized in novel ways. They are also as subtle as how a humanoid robot could threaten job security, or how a robot that includes advanced surveillance systems could undermine privacy.
Then there are the challenges of technological bias that have been plaguing AI for some time, especially where it leads to learned behavior that turn out to be highly discriminatory. For example, AI algorithms have produced sexist and racist results.
Just because we can, should we?
The Tesla Bot may seem like a small step toward Musk’s vision of superhuman technologies, and one that’s easy to write off as little more than hubristic showmanship. But the audacious plans underpinning it are serious — and they raise equally serious questions.
For instance, how responsible is Musk’s vision? Just because he can work toward creating the future of his dreams, who’s to say that he should? Is the future that Musk is striving to bring about the best one for humankind, or even a good one? And who will suffer the consequences if things go wrong?
These are the deeper concerns that the Tesla Bot raises for me as someone who studies and writes about the future and how our actions impact it. This is not to say that Tesla Bot isn’t a good idea, or that Elon Musk shouldn’t be able to flex his future-building muscles. Used in the right way, these are transformative ideas and technologies that could open up a future full of promise for billions of people.
But if consumers, investors and others are bedazzled by the glitz of new tech or dismissive of the hype and fail to see the bigger picture, society risks handing the future to wealthy innovators whose vision exceeds their understanding. If their visions of the future don’t align with what most people aspire to, or are catastrophically flawed, they are in danger of standing in the way of building a just and equitable future.
Maybe this is the abiding lesson from dystopian robot-future sci-fi movies that people should be taking away as the Tesla Bot moves from idea to reality — not the more obvious concerns of creating humanoid robots that run amok, but the far larger challenge of deciding who gets to imagine the future and be a part of building it.
This article by Prof. Maynard, Associate Dean, College of Global Futures, Arizona State University, was first published in The Conversation.
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Facebook Founder Zuckerberg Loses $711m In Eght Hours
In just eight hours on Wednesday, Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, lost N317.52 billion ($711 million) after his company, Meta Platforms Inc, was accused of replicating a technology idea to which its executives had been privy .
The allegation was made by HaptX Inc. founder and Chief Executive Officer, Jake Rubin. The company specialises in creating gadgets for augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) with microfluidic haptic.
Microfluidic haptic feedback, such from the glove, uses actuators, allowing for more natural or smooth sensations in the hand, unlike haptic feedback that comes with a game controller that uses small motors and buzz or rumble in the hands of the user.
Rubin wrote a note on Tuesday, disclosing that its prototype microfluidic haptic feedback glove is “substantively identical” to the version Meta unveiled to the world on November 16, 2021.
HaptX’s patent prototype had been in existence long before Zuckerberg’s company launched theirs, and in the past years, Rubin’s firm had shown it to “many engineers, researchers, and executives from Meta.”
HaptX has raised $32.51 million to scale in the market of microfluidic haptic, against a rival like Meta, which is worth $947.94 billion, and the world’s 7th most valuable company by market cap.
This is not the first time minority tech companies are accusing Meta, previously known as Facebook Inc., with the firm said to have ripped off Snapchat ideas after the founders refused to sell when Zuckerberg offered $3 billion.
He later acquired Instagram instead. But in its twelve years of operation, government agencies in Europe and UK had also accused Facebook Inc. of anti-competition.
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In a LinkedIn post, Rubin wrote, “We welcome interest and competition in the field of microfluidic haptic, however, competition has to be fair for the industry to thrive.”
In another post in HaptX blog, he said, “While we have not yet heard from Meta, we look forward to working with them to reach a fair and equitable arrangement that addresses our concerns and enables them to incorporate our innovative technology into their future consumer products,”
A day after Rubin accused Meta of replicating its innovation, Zuckerberg lost N317.52 billion as his total fortune depleted to $121.9 billion following a 0.64 percent crash in Meta’s market value which dropped to $340.77 per share from $342.96.
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Britain’s Highest Court Blocks $4b Class Suit Against Google
A $4 billion class action against Google that had accused the company of illegally tracking millions of iPhone users suffered a major blow on Wednesday as Britain’s highest court blocked it.
The Supreme Court said in a statement that its five judges “unanimously” dismissed the legal action brought by campaigners against the US-based tech giant on behalf of 4.4 million people in England and Wales.
The “Google You Owe Us” association had sought compensation of £3 billion ($4 billion, 3.5 billion euros) after accusing the group of secretly tracking iPhone users’ internet activity.
A UK court had already dismissed the case in October 2018 but the judgement was overturned by the Court of Appeal, allowing the latest hearing to take place.
Judge George Leggatt, delivering the Supreme Court ruling, declared the intention to seek damages without proving financial loss or mental distress, was “unsustainable”.
The association had accused Google of circumventing iPhone security options and collecting personal data between August 2011 and February 2012 using the smartphone’s Safari browser.
It claimed Google “illegally misused the data of millions of iPhone users” via the “clandestine tracking and collation” of information about internet usage on iPhones.
Google had yet to respond to its legal victory thanks to the Supreme Court concluding that the “unlawful processing” of data had not been proven.
“Google You Owe Us” described the verdict as a “bitter blow” to UK consumers.
“We are bitterly disappointed that the Supreme Court has failed to do enough to protect the public from Google and other big tech firms who break the law,” added lead claimant Richard Lloyd in a statement.
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Govt Extends Deadline For NIN-SIM Data Verification
The Federal Government has extended the deadline for the National Identity Number (NIN)-Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) data verification.
The Federal Government is calling on citizens and legal residents to complete the process before the end of the year 2021.
This was contained in a statement by Ikechukwu Adinde, Director, Public Affairs of the Nigerian Communications Commission and Mr Kayode Adegoke, Head, Corporate Communications, Nigeria Identity Management Commission, NIMC.
The decision to extend the deadline, according to the statement, was made further to appeals by the Mobile Network Operators and other industry stakeholders, soliciting for a further extension to ensure better compliance with the government’s directive and to avoid widening the digital divide.
The statement added that the extension would also provide the enabling environment for the registration of Nigerians in remote areas, diaspora, schools, hospitals, worship centres, as well as foreigners, diplomatic missions, those in other areas that were hitherto unreachable, and increase enrolments in countries with a significant number of Nigerians.
“The review of the progress of the exercise indicated that over 66 million unique National Identity Numbers (NIN) have been issued- an indication of progress achieved in the ongoing NIN-SIM linkage,” the statement said.
It explained, however, that a significant part of the populace is yet to be registered into the National Identity Database (NIDB), which may be due to some challenges which the Federal Government has looked into and has made efforts to alleviate, hence the need to extend the deadline.
“As of October 30, 2021, there were over 9,500 enrolment systems and over 8,000 NIN enrolment centres within and outside the country- this has significantly eased the NIN enrolment process and subsequent linkage of NIN to SIM,” it added.
The NIN-SIM verification process is supporting the Government’s drive to develop Nigeria’s digital economy, strengthen its ability to protect cyberspace and support the security agencies.
“The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari has graciously approved the extension to accommodate the yearnings of the populace and make.
“It is easier for its citizens within and outside the country, and legal residents to obtain the NIN and link it with their SIM. The Federal Government will ensure that all innocent, law-abiding citizens and residents will not lose access to their phone lines as long as they obtain and link their NIN.
“Government will also continue to provide an enabling environment for investors in the telecommunications sector.
“The unique 66 million NIN enrolments, with an average of 3 to 4 SIMs linked to the NIN, is a testament to the commitment and dedication of the Federal Government, through the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), to ensure the success of the project.
“With the creation of additional NIN enrolment centres within and outside the country, and many more coming up, the remaining citizens and legal residents living in the country and the diaspora should be able to obtain their NINs and link them with their SIMs before the end of the year.
“Consequently, the Honourable Minister enjoins Nigerians and legal residents to make use of the opportunity of the extension to enrol for their NINs and link with their SIMs.
“On behalf of the FGN, the Honourable Minister, the Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, and the Director-General/CEO of NIMC, Engr. Aliyu A. Aziz, urge citizens and legal residents to take advantage of the window to complete the process of enrolment and verification before the end of the year 2021,” the statement added.
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