Robots and Boundaries Part 3: Abuse

In the prior two sections, we looked at how robots transgress human boundaries. Today, how about turning that around? It’s a mainstay in human robot interaction (HRI) that robots get bullied. Sometimes it’s a humorous way of testing a robot’s capabilities like with Boston Dynamic’s designated ‘robot bully.’ Sometimes its out in the field as with the famous case of the mall patrol robot which was deployed for an HRI paper on how people treat robots who are acting autonomously. That paper spawned further algorithmic work on finding paths which would avoid bullies. Further studies were conducted on bullying robots, which suggested that robots were bullied because they were human-like or perceived to be affected by bullying. At the risk of rehashing the end of the previous part, this raises the question of whether a robot can be considered to be abused and what the cutoff is for causing physical harm to an entity. We condemn animal abuse because they can feel pain, but like simulated intelligence, when are simulated feelings effectively the same as organic ones?

ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories 


For the time being, the better policy question is: should it be – or is it already – an offense to stop a robot from doing their job? Let’s take a delivery crawler, one of those little critters that have taken to roaming the streets of San Francisco bringing people pizzas, or those upright bins that trundle down the hallways of particularly swanky hotels carrying room service and extra pillows. What if someone won’t let the delivery bot go by? Eventually the food will get cold and the robot will be missed – presuming it has no way to alert its owner that something has gone wrong in the interim. I think it can be taken as assumed that stealing from a delivery crawler is theft from whoever bought the contents just like stealing from a delivery truck, so we can skip that. Besides, the only speculation about theft so far has been by media outlets and the people that made the robots. There’s been no known cases of a delivery crawler being robbed by an actual malefactor. In all these cases with the delivery bot, interfering with the robot materially injures both the buyer of the food and the owner of the robot who has probably lost business because the robot was late or the food was missing.

Robots deliver fun with hotel room service orders, and they don't expect a tip

Delivery robot in a hotel (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times).  Interesting sidenote, there is a documented case of one of these being delayed by accident when it gets knocked sideways by a passing guest and gets confused.

That’s too obvious. What about slowing it down? Just delay it two minutes. Or to take the example of a different type of robot, what about stopping an assembly robot for a couple minutes, or getting in the way of a robot that patrols building lobbies offering to help visitors find a specific room? I suppose it comes down – for now – to whether the decrease in efficiency can be proven to have cost something. Eventually harassing a robot will probably be some kind of crime given how many will be out in the world doing useful tasks, but for now – especially if the robot is traversing a public space – I’m not aware of whether anything can or will be done to curb such behaviors. For now it’s all down to property damage or some provable loss.

Jump ahead a few years. Delivery crawlers are relatively commonplace, and have been programmed to understand that their cargo is usually less valuable than they are. Thus if they are threatened with the possibility of theft, they will release the hatch rather than be harmed by attempts at forced entry. This adds a shade to the theft concept, I think. At this point the robots may start being taught how much damage they can take from various implements, and they’re more likely to surrender to someone with a weapon. At this point, can we distinguish between armed and unarmed robbery of an autonomous machine? Before, it was clear cut. There is more harm done if the robot was damaged in the theft. Now the threat of violence is weighed into the robot’s behavior, and so that threat may have to be considered as part of the crime. This can loop us back to part 1 of this series. In some municipalities, it’s legal to use force to defend and retrieve property. I will be very interested to see the first case of someone claiming that this right extends to delivery robots, and arms their robots so they can defend themselves against detected attempts at theft.

This series has been a bit more pie in the sky than my usual. Thinking 10+ years ahead rather than 2-3. In my next piece, I’ll get back to the present and near future with a look at delivery crawlers and how they’re being treated by a present day government.

One thought on “Robots and Boundaries Part 3: Abuse

  1. Pingback: Cute Robots | RxEvolution - Portfolio of Paul Calhoun

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