Andra Keay (Silicon Valley Robotics) on "Postponing the Robopocalypse"

by Austin Krentz

Andra Keay spoke at a L.A.S.E.R. in San Francisco in January 2020.

Andra Keay is the managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics who has also founded several other organizations such as Women in Robotics. Silicon Valley Robotics is a non-profit organization aimed to "facilitate networking, fact finding, and research" in the field of global robotics. They do this through networking events and forums, and also through online boards and newsletters. They have been operating since 2010, and Andra uses this experience during her LASER talk to address and discuss several questions and conspiracies related to the impending "Robopocalypse" and the future of robotics in general.

Andra begins her talk with a historical discussion about robots. Automata have been around for about 2000 years, whereas the word for `Robot' has only been around for about 100. Automata have always been functional and integrated mechanical objects, while the word as created by Karel Capek referred to biological forced labor. This is possibly one of the reasons for the modern fear over robots and technological advancement in general. This fear then leads to the focal discussion of this talk: The "Robopocalypse." This discussion is broken up into smaller discussions on several doomsday scenarios.

The first of these scenarios is "Total Termination." In this version of the apocalypse, self-functioning robotic weapons destroy all life on the planet (a la the 1984 James Cameron film The Terminator). The way out of this one is simple, according to Andra: The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. The Campaign is a non-governmental organization which calls for the prohibition of the development and use of fully autonomous weapon systems. 28 countries have signed onto this campaign since 2013. The United States is not one of these countries, and China has only promised not to use killer robots but will still develop them.

The second scenario is called "Sneaky Skynet." This scenario involves the fear of an autonomous system controlling and affecting human life rather than ending it. The reference point for this fear is the HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey: an AI who ends up killing humans because it is only doing what it is programmed to do. According to Andra, there's really to reason to worry about artificial intelligence when "artificial stupidity will do the job just as well." All of the major computerized systems in the world were designed by humans and therefore flawed. A bit of bad code or more human stupidity could easily topple a major system and cause the apocalypse long before robots get the chance to.

"Robots Take Our Jobs" is the third scenario. Interestingly enough, this concern is the point of an autonomous system: to reduce the amount of human labor needed. Yet, there is still concern over this, but Andra is not very worried. Historically, people have been able to transition jobs in times of technological revolution. One of the main factors that allows this is the fact that these shifts happen over the course of decades rather than years. On top of that, since 1890, the unemployment rate in The United States has hovered around 4% with the exception of during The Great Depression. Generally, technology has been used to fill a gap in labor rather than replace it.

There are still specific concerns that the robotic future is so far ahead of anything humans have come up against that many people won't have a place in it. But this is unwarranted according to Andra. If toddlers can operate smart phones today, adults can operate robots in the future. Her advice on top of this is for more people to get into robotics to help create the infrastructure which will then influence more people and, in the end, better the world. Plus, if one knows how to build robots, or even just pick up robots, they will always have a job. This is where Silicon Valley Robotics comes in.

Robots may seem super intelligent in some areas, but their basic motor and perception skills are nowhere near the level of humans. Many robots can't even stand themselves up without the aid of a person (which is where picking up robots becomes a job opportunity). With the help of better directed funding and networking, robots can eventually reach the level of intelligence some people imagine them to be. Some people fear that this will lead to the apocalypse. But a science fiction level autonomous system can also efficiently distribute fuel resources, perform difficult surgeries, or fill a gap in society that people don't even know exists yet. So, instead of worrying about robots ruining the future, Andra and Silicon Valley Robotics imagine how they can save it.