humanity technology feature story .pdf
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The goal of this project was to convey a complex ethical concept to a lay audience from aj ournalistic standpoint. I
interviewed Mr.Michael Taylor, a Ph.D Robotics student atCarnegie Mellon,about the Community Robotics Education
Technology and Empowerment Laboratory. We discussed the projects in the lab,along with the ethical implications of the
proliferation of artificial intelligence in the decision making process of everyday human life.
Retaining Humanity Through Technology
A piece on the CREATE Lab of the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute
April 28 2015 | By Yannick Hogarth
Technological developments in the 21st century have expedited and automated many tasks in everyday
For example, a McDonald's computer vision algorithm can tell a cook how many salads, fish
sandwiches or otherwise 'healthy' meals should be prepared- simply based on the number of Toyota
Prius's that enter a drive-through. A customer who drives a hybrid vehicle, through McDonald's
reasoning, is more likely to be health conscious compared to say, a pickup truck driving customer who
might order a Big Mac and multiple orders of fries.
In the home, a robotic pet-food dispenser can automatically feed your dog or cat at regular intervals
without any intervention from the owner. When food is running low, the dispenser automatically places
an order from Amazon, giving the owner more free time, never having to worry about the pet feeding
These examples are just two of many instances where technology has taken the decision-making load
off of the human shoulders. No doubt about it, automation is efficient, and frankly, comfortable. But at
Agency is the capacity to act as a self-conscious, decision-making human being in our world. Whether
that's through ordering food at McDonald's, or exhibiting empathetic care when feeding our pets- can
our use of artificial intelligence dehumanize us? Does the detachment of seemingly boring and trivial
decisions challenge our human agency?
This has been a major subject in the ethical debate about robotics for decades.
One extreme viewpoint claims that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the increased use of robotics
in our society. Those on the other end of the spectrum however, argue that we as a society should reject
techno-centricity, lest we end up in a dystopian reality where machines make all of the 'human'
decisions for us, thus effectively controlling our lives, and rendering the human obsolete.
Some take a stance in somewhere in the middle, and argue that technology and artificial intelligence
(AI) itself isn't the problem. As a matter of fact, technology and robots are here to stay, and can
actually be used to bring back agency to the human user.
The CREATE Lab of the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute takes such a stance.
One can find the Community Robotics Education Technology and Empowerment (CREATE)
Laboratory tucked away in a hallway on the ground floor of the Robert Mehrabian Collaborative
Innovation Center. An interview with graduate student Michael Taylor shed more light on what the lab
contributes to not only the community, but also the ethical discussion of robotics. He has already
completed his Masters degree at the Robotics Institute, but desired to stay with the CREATE Lab as a
Ph.D student, after taking the graduate course, 'Ethics and Robotics' taught by the head of the lab,
Professor Illah Nourbakhsh.
“Traditional academia is not the path I want to go down” says Taylor, “but the lab here is different.
CREATE stands for Community Robotics Education Technology and Empowerment. I focus on the
“A lot of what we do, is develop technology, and program that technology to empower people to
investigate issues that they care about. We want technology that helps people, to be more like people.”
What exactly does that look like? Currently, the CREATE Lab is deep in roughly 15 different projects,
one of which being the 'Message from Me' project, happening right here in Pittsburgh.
'Message from Me' aims to bridge a disconnect between parents and their children of kindergarten or
daycare age. A parent asking their child , “what'd you do at school today?” after a day at work is
usually met with awkward silence, if not a mumble from the kid.
Through 'Message from Me', students are able to use a robotic apparatus, on which cameras,
microphones, and scanners are mounted to record and share their daily experiences with their parents.
A snapshot of an arts and crafts project, or a simple video of the child saying hello are typical examples
of what is recorded. The files are then automatically sent via voicemail, or text message, to the parent.
Not just having a reach in the local communities, CREATE's members also travel the globe, helping
communities utilize technology to enhance their own interpersonal interactions in meaningful ways.
Just this year, Professor Nourbakhsh, along with students and faculty from different departments on
campus, traveled to Ireland to engage in the 'Hear Me' initiative over spring break.
“Through various types of media, videos, audio recordings, billboards or art, we want to make young
people's voices heard to adult decision makers. This campaign is focused on different youth issuesfrom bullying, to quality of cafeteria food, to youth-police relations” says Taylor.
The lab has also conducted projects to address crises in Uganda and Haiti, and isn't afraid to get in the
“It's one thing to read about a particular issue abroad and think about it, and it's completely another to
experience it firsthand. You need to physically go there, otherwise usually you just end up being
wrong. You want to be on the same level as the community you serve.”
An important bit about CREATE, is its ongoing connection that comes with their work. Taylor
remarks, “One thing we try to avoid: many projects in academia have very good intentions and have
solutions for solving problems, but they're pilot at most. They kind of parachute in, and then parachute
out. They get the results, they publish the paper, but they leave the community without being able to
operate on their own with the technology. We at CREATE try to avoid this, and stay in contact with the
communities so they can continue the projects on their own.”
The Bigger Picture
The work done at CREATE is wonderful, and is something our digitized society needs badly. Yet, the
dehumanization aspect of social media and increased technology is alive and well. Paranoia exists
about the increasing decision-making capabilities of artificial intelligence. Even Elon Musk, the
inventive genius and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, has warned about the dangers of AI
technologies, and has pledged $10 million dollars to the Future of Life Institue, a volunteer research
organization that works to 'mitigate the existential risks facing humanity', with a focus on social
implications of AI.
But what else can be done to divert ourselves from such a dismal, Terminator-esque path in the near
According to the optimistic Michael Taylor, the answer lies in understanding our own responsibilities
in both using and developing new technology.
“Technology does have the potential to reduce the dimensionality of human interactions and isolate
people. These are things we don't want happening in the future, but the bigger message is less that
we're headed down the wrong path. Instead, as we continue to develop technology, we need to be
cognisant of the implications of what we're developing. We need to ask ourselves... 'is this good?'.
People will come up with different answers to that. Some will agree, and some will disagree. And that's
ok! It's more important that people understand potential issues and are aware”.
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