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The Challenges, Possibilities and Ethics of AI-Enabled Robots

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Experts weigh in at UT’s Hook ‘Em House at SXSW

Peter Stone has devoted his professional life to building and developing robots. But for years, the outside world had only two views. Robots would resemble Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Terminator” or the fun, cartoon world from “The Jetsons.”

“It was always one extreme or the other,” said Stone, professor and executive director of Texas Robotics at The University of Texas at Austin.

Thanks to artificial intelligence and the explosion of ChatGPT, the conversation is changing. The extremes have softened, and now the public discourse regarding robotics has more nuance.

Robots could see wide acceptance in the years to come as the population becomes more accustomed to their assistance and a growing comfort level with what humans will accept.

The future of robots in society was the main topic during an hour-long discussion Friday at UT’s Hook ’Em House at Antone’s. South by Southwest panels are the perfect venue to talk about the future. These days, families may be ready to allow more than robot vacuum cleaners and entertainment bots into their home.

“I think we are in a place, it’s in a state where you can have robots in our midst and not be scared of them,” Stone said. “It’s a little bit of a public perception issue as much of a technology issue what needs for the robot to be considered safe.”

Bill Smart, a professor at Oregon State University, indicated that robot acceptance may ultimately boil down to individual choice. Are you willing to let a robot cook for you? Would you let it mow the lawn? Or, are those things you take personal satisfaction in and would never give up doing yourself?

“We can have a robot that makes sure if you fall to call emergency services,” Smart said, “but it’s going to stare at you 24 hours a day.”

Most homeowners might think, “A robot that can clean the house or the lawn? Where do I sign?”

“Suppose you can afford a robot within your house and the contract costs $300 a month,” Smart said. “Do you want to do that or do you want to hire a local cleaning service to put money back into the local economy?

“We’re going to have to think hard about what kind of data collect, not just legally, but what kind of data we’re willing to share,” Smart added. “And then it’s about knowing who’s going to sell that data to another data broker. These robots are going to have a much more intimate picture of our lives, right? They may not go into the bathroom, but they see you going into the bathroom. The level of intrusion they could have is going to be deeper.”

Diligent Robotics CEO Andrea Thomaz leads a company focused on socially intelligent robot assistants that collaborate with humans on basic, everyday tasks. “If you were thinking about building your house to truly be robot enabled, you would think about how to design the hallways, thinking about where your stuff is stored,” Thomaz said.

Robots can be trained in the factory for general purpose applications, Stone said. But then it must adapt to someone’s home. “What’s going to be the sweet spot behind the entertainment and vacuuming,” Stone said.

Everybody should be accustomed to having at least one robot already in their home.

“You all have a robot, you have a dishwasher,” Smart said. “It’s easier to engineer a thing for a particular purpose. It’s harder to engineer a thing for all the purposes. So I think finding that sweet spot finding how you can do it at scale, where we can all afford it.”

Texas Robotics is going to be a major contributor to the AI development. Stone’s group is now home to 13 robotics labs, 40 affiliated faculty members and more than 150 students and research engineers. The department currently offers a graduate portfolio program, hands-on research opportunities and an undergraduate minor degree plan.