From Death to Life: The Robot Week In Review

So much happened this week, I do not know where to begin. We are still reeling in America from the Dallas ambush. I am reminded that it could have been much worse if it was not for the local police department’s robot that delivered Micah Johnson (the shooter) an explosive package. Now that RoboCop has been successfully deployed, we are left with many ethical questions about justice being served through joysticks and the lack of due process.

When reviewing his kill decision, the Dallas police chief David Brown said, “We saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension for it to detonate where the suspect was…Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger.”

Brown’s sentiment was echoed by the CEO of Endeavor Robotics Sean Bielat, “A robot was used to keep people out of harm’s way in an extreme situation…that’s how robots are intended to be used.” According to the Dallas Police Department, the robot, while first reported to be an Endeavor Packbot,  is really a Northrop Grumman Mark V-A1 robot (below).

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Brown’s decision, though widely not criticized, is considered a “slippery slope” by many prominent ethicists. Heather Roff, a research scientist at Arizona State University’s Global Security Initiative, expressed deep concern as, “this is going to be very hard to put back and that the militarization of police capabilities means that they may now feel that it is reasonable to use robotics in this way to ensure compliance…If one doesn’t have to talk to a subject and can demand compliance, then this may mean more forceful or coercive demands are made.”


From killer robots to robots that assist nurses with newborn babies. According to findings from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, robots could eventually play integral roles in labor wards as “resource nurses.” MIT researchers have begun training robots by inputting data from local nurses’ schedules and decision making processes.

The trainee is a Softbank NAO robot that has begin to understand why key nursing decisions are made opposed to alternatives. The robot takes into account the complexity of patients assigned to particular nurses, break schedules, and more. It can also determine nurses’ availability on the floor. Ninety-percent of the time, the robot made suggestions that doctors and nurses would have carried out themselves.

“It is really one person making these decisions. It’s a very complex environment and a very hard job,” said MIT professor Julie Shah, the senior author of the study.  According to Shah, there are two important use cases for the technology. It can be an effective training tool for novice nurses and can help make better decisions in the labor ward. Next up for the labor robots, Shah said, is to expand the research to other labor units in more hospitals.

“We are looking to scale this, but this is a safety critical domain so we’re making sure we take measured steps,” Shah added.

I am pleased to announce that the latest robot baby to be born this month is Anki’s Cozmo. The robot, priced at $180, is part toy and part sophisticated bot. Cozmo is really a desktop companion that is ready to play games, recognizes/remembers faces, and very interactive.  However, the key to Cozmo is its user-friendly Anki Drive or SDK that enables anyone to program the robot as easily as creating an app.  

“There’s no fundamental difference between apps and robotics,” says Hanns Tappeiner CEO of Anki, “but it’s because people at Apple and Google have written thousands of lines of code, so you don’t have to write your own. In order to advance robotics as a whole, we need to move away from a point where only robotics experts can take part.”


Cozmo is yet another example of the catch-22 of robotics – a small, capable (cute) inexpensive robot that can recognize and catalog faces, could also be used for nefarious (spying) purposes. Hours ago, a 300 lb. Knightscope K5 robot ran over a toddler in a California mall while on patrol. As industry leaders, we have to be prepared for the pandora box which we are just beginning to open as we deploy robotic technology into everyday lives.

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