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“[An] essential book... it is required reading as we seriously engage one of the most important debates of our time.”—Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age
From drones to Mars rovers—an exploration of the most innovative use of robots today and a provocative argument for the crucial role of humans in our increasingly technological future.
In Our Robots, Ourselves, David Mindell offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the cutting edge of robotics today, debunking commonly held myths and exploring the rapidly changing relationships between humans and machines.
Drawing on firsthand experience, extensive interviews, and the latest research from MIT and elsewhere, Mindell takes us to extreme environments—high atmosphere, deep ocean, and outer space—to reveal where the most advanced robotics already exist. In these environments, scientists use robots to discover new information about ancient civilizations, to map some of the world’s largest geological features, and even to “commute” to Mars to conduct daily experiments. But these tools of air, sea, and space also forecast the dangers, ethical quandaries, and unintended consequences of a future in which robotics and automation suffuse our everyday lives.
Mindell argues that the stark lines we’ve drawn between human and not human, manual and automated, aren’t helpful for understanding our relationship with robotics. Brilliantly researched and accessibly written, Our Robots, Ourselves clarifies misconceptions about the autonomous robot, offering instead a hopeful message about what he calls “rich human presence” at the center of the technological landscape we are now creating.
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David A. Mindell is Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing at MIT. He has twenty-five years of experience as an engineer in undersea robotic exploration, as a veteran of more than thirty oceanographic expeditions, and as a pilot and engineer of autonomous aircraft. He is the award-winning author of Iron Coffin: War Technology and Experience Aboard the USS Monitor and Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight. He founded Humatics Corporation, which creates technologies to render autonomy transparent, safe, and trustworthy by transforming how robots and autonomous systems work in human environments.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Human, Remote, Autonomous
LATE IN THE NIGHT, HIGH ABOVE THE ATLANTIC OCEAN IN THE LONG, OPEN STRETCH between Brazil and Africa, an airliner encountered rough weather. Ice clogged the small tubes on the aircraft’s nose that detected airspeed and transmitted the data to the computers flying the plane. The computers could have continued flying without the information, but they had been told by their programmers that they could not.
The automated, fly-by-wire system gave up, turned itself off, and handed control to the human pilots in the cockpit: thirty-two-year-old Pierre Cedric Bonin and thirty-seven-year-old David Robert. Bonin and Robert, both relaxed and a little fatigued, were caught by surprise, suddenly responsible for hand flying a large airliner at high altitude in bad weather at night. It is a challenging task under the best of circumstances, and one they had not handled recently. Their captain, fifty-eight-year-old Marc Debois, was off duty back in the cabin. They had to waste precious attention to summon him.
Even though the aircraft was flying straight and level when the computers tripped off, the pilots struggled to make sense of the bad air data. One man pulled back, the other pushed forward on his control stick. They continued straight and level for about a minute, then lost control.
On June 1, 2009, Air France flight 447 spiraled into the ocean, killing more than two hundred passengers and crew. It disappeared below the waves, nearly without a trace.
In the global, interconnected system of international aviation, it is unacceptable for an airliner to simply disappear. A massive, coordinated search followed. In just a few days traces of flight 447 were located on the ocean’s surface. Finding the bulk of the wreckage, however, and the black box data recorders that held the keys to the accident’s causes, required hunting across a vast seafloor, and proved frustratingly slow.
More than two years later, two miles deep on the seafloor, nearly beneath the very spot where the airliner hit the ocean, an autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV, called Remus 6000 glided quietly through the darkness and extreme pressure. Moving at just faster than a human walking pace, the torpedo-shaped robot maintained a precise altitude of about two hundred feet off the bottom, a position at which its ultrasonic scanning sonar returns the sharpest images. As the sonars pinged to about a half mile out either side, the robot collected gigabytes of data from the echoes.
The terrain is mountainous, so the seafloor rose quickly. Despite its intelligence, the robot occasionally bumped into the bottom, mostly without injury. Three such robots worked in a coordinated dance: two searched underwater at any given time, while a third one rested on a surface ship in a three-hour pit stop with its human handlers to offload data, charge batteries, and take on new search plans.
On the ship, a team of twelve engineers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, including leader Mike Purcell, who spearheaded the design and development of the searching vehicles, worked in twelve-hour shifts, busy as any pit crew. When a vehicle came to the surface, it took about forty-five minutes for the engineers to download the data it collected into a computer, then an additional half hour to process those data to enable a quick, preliminary scroll-through on a screen.
Looking over their shoulders were French and German investigators, and representatives from Air France. The mood was calculating and deliberate, but tense: the stakes were high for French national pride, for the airliner’s manufacturer, Airbus, and for the safety of all air travel. Several prior expeditions had tried and failed. In France, Brazil, and around the world, families awaited word.
Interpreting sonar data requires subtle judgment not easily left solely to a computer. Purcell and his engineers relied on years of experience. On their screens, they reviewed miles and miles of rocky reflections alternating with smooth bottom. The pattern went on for five days before the monotony broke: a crowd of fragments appeared, then a debris field—a strong signal of human-made artifacts in the ocean desert. Suggestive, but still not definitive.
The engineers reprogrammed the vehicles to return to the debris and “fly” back and forth across it, this time close enough that onboard lights and cameras could take pictures from about thirty feet off the bottom. When the vehicles brought the images back to the surface, engineers and investigators recognized the debris and had their answer: they had found the wreckage of flight 447, gravesite of hundreds.
Soon, another team returned with a different kind of robot, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), a heavy-lift vehicle specially designed for deep salvage, connected by a cable to the ship. Using the maps created by the successful search, the ROV located the airliner’s black box voice and data recorders and brought them to the surface. The doomed pilots’ last minutes were recovered from the ocean, and investigators could now reconstruct the fatal confusion aboard the automated airliner. The ROV then set about the grim task of retrieving human remains.
The Air France 447 crash and recovery linked advanced automation and robotics across two extreme environments: the high atmosphere and the deep sea. The aircraft plunged into the ocean because of failures in human interaction with automated systems; the wreckage was then discovered by humans operating remote and autonomous robots.
While the words (and their commonly perceived meanings) suggest that automated and autonomous systems are self-acting, in both cases the failure or success of the systems derived not from the machines or the humans operating on their own, but from people and machines operating together. Human pilots struggled to fly an aircraft that had been automated for greater safety and reliability; networks of ships, satellites, and floating buoys helped pinpoint locations; engineers interpreted and acted on data produced by robots. Automated and autonomous vehicles constantly returned to their human makers for information, energy, and guidance.
Air France 447 made tragically clear that as we constantly adapt to and reshape our surroundings, we are also remaking ourselves. How could pilots have become so dependent on computers that they flew a perfectly good airliner into the sea? What becomes of the human roles in activities like transportation, exploration, and warfare when more and more of the critical tasks seem to be done by machines?
In the extreme view, some believe that humans are about to become obsolete, that robots are “only one software upgrade away” from full autonomy, as Scientific American has recently argued. And they tell us that the robots are coming—coming to more familiar environments. A new concern for the strange and uncertain potentials of artificial intelligence has arisen out of claims that we are on the cusp of superintelligence. Our world is about to be transformed, indeed is already being transformed, by robotics and automation. Start-ups are popping up, drawing on old dreams of smart machines to help us with professional duties, physical labor, and the mundane tasks of daily life. Robots living and working alongside humans in physical, cognitive, and emotional intimacy have emerged as a growing and promising subject of research. Autonomy—the dream that robots will one day act as fully independent agents—remains a source of inspiration, innovation, and concern.
The excitement is in the thrill of experimentation; the precise forms of these technologies are far from certain, much less their social, psychological, and cognitive implications. How will our robots change us? In whose image will we make them? In the domain of work, what will become of our traditional roles—scientist, lawyer, doctor, soldier, manager, even driver and sweeper—when the tasks are altered by machines? How will we live and work?
We need not speculate: much of this future is with us today, if not in daily life then in extreme environments, where we have been using robotics and automation for decades. In the high atmosphere, the deep ocean, and outer space humans cannot exist on their own. The demands of placing human beings in these dangerous settings have forced the people who work in them to build and adopt robotics and automation earlier than those in other, more familiar realms.
Extreme environments press the relationships between people and machines to their limits. They have long been sites of innovation. Here engineers have the freest hand to experiment. Despite the physical isolation, here the technologies’ cognitive and social effects first become apparent. Because human lives, expensive equipment, and important missions are at stake, autonomy must always be tempered with safety and reliability.
In these environments, the mess and busyness of daily life are temporarily suspended, and we find, set off from the surrounding darkness, brief, dream-like allegories of human life and technology. The social and technological forces at work on an airliner’s flight deck, or inside a deep-diving submersible, are not fundamentally different from those in a factory, an office, or an automobile. But in extreme environments they appear in condensed, intense form, and are hence easier to grasp. Every airplane flight is a story, and so is every oceanographic expedition, every space flight, every military mission. Through these stories of specific people and machines we can glean subtle, emerging dynamics.
Extreme environments teach us about our near future, when similar technologies might pervade automobiles, health care, education, and other human endeavors. Human-operated, remotely controlled, and autonomous vehicles represent the leading edge of machine and human potential, new forms of presence and experience, while drawing our attention to the perils, ethical implications, and unintended consequences of living with smart machines. We see a future where human knowledge and presence will be more crucial than ever, if in some ways strange and unfamiliar.
And these machines are just cool. I’m not alone in my lifelong fascination with airplanes, spacecraft, and submarines. Indeed, technological enthusiasm, as much as the search for practical utility, drives the stories that follow. It’s no coincidence that similar stories are so often the subject of science fiction—something about people and machines at the limits of their abilities captures the imagination, engages our wonder, and stirs hopes about who we might become.
This enthusiasm sometimes reflects a naïve faith in the promise of technology. But when mature it is an enthusiasm for basic philosophical and humanistic questions: Who are we? How do we relate to our work and to one another? How do our creations expand our experience? How can we best live in an uncertain world? These questions lurk barely below the surface as we talk to people who build and operate robots and vehicles.
Join me as I draw on firsthand experience, extensive interviews, and the latest research from MIT and elsewhere to explore experiences of robotics and automation in the extreme environments of the deep ocean and in aviation (civil and military) and spaceflight. It is not an imagination of the future, but a picture of today: we’ll see how people operate with and through robots and autonomy and how their interactions affect their work, their experiences, and their skills and knowledge.
Our stories begin where I began, in the deep ocean. Twenty-five years ago, as an engineer designing embedded computers and instruments for deep-ocean robots, I was surprised to find that technologies were changing in unexpected ways the work of oceanography, the ways of doing science, the meaning of being an oceanographer.
The realization led to two parallel careers. As a scholar, I study the human implications of machinery, from ironclad warships in the American Civil War to the computers and software that helped the Apollo astronauts land on the moon. As an engineer, I bring that research to bear on present-day projects, building robots and vehicles designed to work in intimate partnership with people. In the stories that follow I appear in some as a participant, in others as an observer, and in still others as both.
These years of experience, research, and conversation have convinced me that we need to change the way we think about robots. The language we use for them is more often from twentieth-century science fiction than from the technological lives we lead today. Remotely piloted aircraft, for example, are referred to as “drones,” as though they were mindless automata, when actually they are tightly controlled by people. Robots are imagined (and sold) as fully autonomous agents, when even today’s modest autonomy is shot through with human imagination. Rather than being threatening automata, the robots we use so variously are embedded, as are we, in social and technical networks. In the pages ahead, we will explore many examples of how we work together with our machines. It’s the combinations that matter.
It is time to review what the robots of today actually do, to deepen our understanding of our relationships with these often astoundingly capable human creations. I argue for a deeply researched empirical conclusion: whatever they might do in a laboratory, as robots move closer to environments with human lives and real resources at stake, we tend to add more human approvals and interventions to govern their autonomy. My argument here is not that machines are not intelligent, nor that someday they might not be. Rather, my argument is that such machines are not inhuman.
Let us name three mythologies of twentieth-century robotics and automation. First, there is the myth of linear progress, the idea that technology evolves from direct human involvement to remote presence and then to fully autonomous robots. Political scientist Peter W. Singer, a prominent public advocate for autonomous systems, epitomizes this mythology when he writes that “this concept of keeping the human in the loop is already being eroded by both policymakers and the technology itself, which are both rapidly moving toward pushing humans out of the loop.”
Yet there is no evidence to suggest that this is a natural evolution, that the “technology itself,” as Singer puts it, does any such thing. In fact there is good evidence that people are moving into deeper intimacy with their machines.
We repeatedly find human, remote, and autonomous vehicles evolving together, each affecting the other. Unmanned aircraft, for example, cannot occupy the national airspace without the task of piloting manned aircraft changing too. In another realm, new robotic techniques for servicing spacecraft changed the way human astronauts serviced the Hubble Space Telescope. The most advanced (and difficult) technologies are not those that stand apart from people, but those that are most deeply embedded in, and responsive to, human and social networks.
Second is the myth of replacement, the idea that machines take over human jobs, one for one. This myth is a twentieth-century version of what I...
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