I was a panelist on The Robot Revolution panel held by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in conjunction with the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry (and the fantastic exhibit Robot Revolution!) You can see the panel at the YouTube clip here
What struck me was the focus on the ethics of robotics: were they safe? what about weaponization? they are going to take away jobs? Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking say they are dangerous, and so on.
I believe that it is unethical not to use existing (and rapidly improving) unmanned systems for emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. The fear of some futuristic version of artificial intelligence is like having discovered penicillin but saying “wait, what if it mutates and eventually leads to penicillin resistant bacteria a 100 years from now” and then starting an unending set of committees and standards processes. Unmanned systems are tools like fire trucks, ambulances, and safety gear.
Here are just three of the reasons why I believe it is unethical not to use unmanned systems for all aspects of emergency management. These came up when I was being interviewed by TIME Magazine as an Agent of Change for Hyundai (but don’t blame them)!
1. Robots speed up disaster response. The logarithmic heuristic developed by Haas, Kates, and Bowden in 1977 posits that reducing the duration of each phase of disaster response reduces the duration of the next phase by a factor of 10. Thus, reducing the initial response phase by just 1 day reduces the overall time through the three reconstruction phases to complete recovery by up to 1,000 days (or 3 years). Think of what that means in terms of lives saved, people not incurring additional health problems, and the resilience of the economy. While social scientists argue with the exact numbers and phases in the Haas, Kates, and Bowden work, it still generally works. If the emergency responders finish up life-saving, rescues, and mitigation, faster then recovery groups can enter the affected region and restore utilities, repairs roads, etc.
At the 2011 Tokoku tsunami, we used unmanned marine vehicles to reopen a fishing port that was central to the economy of the prefecture in 4 hours. It was going to take manual divers 2 weeks to manually cover the same area- but more than 6 months before divers could be schedule to do the inspection. That would have caused the fishing cooperatives to miss the salmon season- which was the center of their economy.
At the 2014 Oso Mudslides, we used UAVs to provide ESF3 Public Works with geological and hydrological data in 7 hours that would normally take 2-4 days to get from satellites and was higher resolution than satellites and better angles than what could have been gotten from manned helicopters– if the helicopters could have safely flown those missions. The data was critical in determining how to protect the responders from additional slide and flooding, protecting residents and property who had not (yet) been affected, and mitigating damage to salmon fishing.
2. Land, sea, and aerial robots have already been used since 2001. By my count, unmanned systems have been used in at least 47 disasters in 15 countries. It’s not like these are new technologies. Sure, they are imperfect (I’ve never met a robot that I couldn’t think of something that would make it better), but they are not going to get any better for emergency response until professionals have them and can use them- there has to be a market and then market pressure/competition can drive useful advances!
3. Robots can prevent disasters. Consider this: The US has an aging infrastructure. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 1 in 9 bridges are structurally deficient. And transportation departments don’t have cost-effective ways to inspect bridges, especially the underwater portions. Remember the I-35W bridge collapse in Minnesota? Minnesota apparently is one of the top states in keeping up with bridge inspections but only 85% of their bridges are compliant with Federal standards on inspection. That doesn’t bode well for them- or the rest of us. We need unmanned systems that can work cost-effectively, 24/7 and in places inspectors can’t go, or can’t go quickly or safely enough.