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Google researchers tackle AI and robotics safety, prevent future toasters from killing us in our sleep

Humans have been afraid of the dangers posed by AI and hypothetical robots or androids since the terms first entered common parlance. Much early science fiction, including stories by Isaac Asimov and more than a few plots of classic Star Trek episodes dealt with the unanticipated consequences humans might encounter if they created sentient AI. It’s a fear that’s been played out in both the Terminator and Matrix franchises, and echoed by luminaries like Elon Musk. Now, Google has released its own early research into minimizing the potential danger of human/robot interaction, as well as calling for an initial set of guidelines designed to govern AI and make it less likely that a problem will occur in the first place.

We’ve already covered Google’s research into an AI killswitch, but this project has a different goal — how to avoid the need for activating such a kill switch in the first place. This initial paper describes outcome failures as “accidents,” defined as a “situation where a human designer had in mind a certain (perhaps informally specified) objective or task, but the system that was actually designed and deployed failed to accomplish that objective in a manner that led to harmful results.”

The report lays out five goals designers must keep in mind in order to avoid accidental outcomes, using a simple cleaning robot in each case. These are:

The full report steps through and discusses how to mitigate some of these issues and is worth a read if you care about the high-level discussions of how to build robust, helpful AI. I’d like to take a different tack, however, and consider how they might relate to a Boston Dynamics video that hit the Internet yesterday. Boston Dynamics has created a new 55- to 65-pound robot, dubbed SpotMini, that it showcases performing a fair number of actions and carrying out common household chores. The full video is embedded below:

At 1:01, we see SpotMini carefully loading glasses into a dishwasher. When it encounters an A&W Root Beer can, it picks the can up and deposits it into a recycling container. Less clear is whether Robo Dogmeat can perform this task when confronted with containers that blur the line between an obvious recyclable (aluminum can) and objects more likely to be re-used, like plastic water bottles, glass bottles of various types, mason jars, and other container types. Still, this is significant progress.

Following scenes show the SpotMini falling over banana peels strewn on the floor, as well as bringing a human a can of beer before wrestling with him for it. While the first was likely included to showcase how the robot could get back up after falling and the second as a laugh, both actually indicate how careful we will have to be when it comes to creating robust algorithms that dictate how future robots behave. While anyone can fall on slippery ground, a roughly 60-pound robot also needs to be able to identify and avoid these kinds of risks, lest it damage nearby people — particularly children or the elderly.

The bit at the end is amusing, but it also showcases a potential problem. A robot that delivers food and drink needs to be aware of when it is and isn’t suitable to release its cargo. It’s not hard to imagine how robots could be useful to the elderly or medically infirm — a SpotMini like the one shown above could help elderly people maintain a higher quality of life and live independently for a longer period of time. If it winds up wrestling grandma over possession of her dentures, however, the end result is likely to be less than appealing.

We’re covering next-generation robotics all this week; read the rest of our Robot Week stories for more. And be sure to check out our ExtremeTech Explains series for more in-depth coverage of today’s hottest tech topics.

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