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What will a future with robots look like?

Automated technology already consumes much of society, from robotic arms working in factories to artificial intelligence used in homes. The next step could be programming ethics and morality into systems, creating a robot-human future. David Ewing Duncan, a science journalist and author, spoke with Hari Sreenivasan about his newest book, "Talking to Robots: Tales from Our Human-Robot Futures."

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Robots are all around us. Some are visible building things in factories and some we never see, the bots that work behind the scenes on the Internet and beyond. I recently spoke with author and science journalist David Ewing Duncan about his new book "Talking to Robots" and asked him what's ahead in our robot future.

  • David Ewing Duncan:

    It's actually a very interesting moment in history, because I think we're on the cusp of having these very, very powerful robots and technologies that we've kind of written about and dreamed about and had sci-fi shows about and books. But we're very close to actually having some of these, which makes us a kind of unique era, if you will, because we're setting the tone for the future.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So some of the robots that you're talking about — I mean I guess there's a distinction between just bots and robots — robots are what we see on sci-fi movies. But then really kind of automated tasks that are happening in the background that we're actually already engaged with. Give us some examples.

  • David Ewing Duncan:

    Most of the robots we have now, we don't really ever see — you know, this kind of robot is a giant arm that you know welds the door onto a car in a factory or it helps move packages around at Amazon. The robots that I'm interested in are where we start actually giving them some human attributes. And there again is a big controversy over how far we should go with that, should we make robots like humans? There are people working on that but clearly we're already getting a little glimpse of this with Alexa and Siri, which seem kind of human maybe or have some aspects of that where you know we're talking to this machine, but that's where we are right now and that's what's fascinating because we're about to move into this era where questions of say morality and ethics, you know, how do we program these robots, if you will, or A.I. systems to do the right thing?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Because those robots are going to reflect the personal preferences and ethics of the people who programmed them, right?

  • David Ewing Duncan:

    Yeah, that's right. And you know we're already seeing this with social media. You know social media was created as this kind of fun way to communicate with everyone and you know you'll find out about what happened to your sixth grade, that sixth grade little girl you were looking at, or little boy or whatever, and years later finding all of that out. And it seemed kind of fun at first, but we're seeing how this is beginning to play out. And that partly has to do with how we as humans are programming social media and some of these other A.I. systems.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is there a creep of this technology down into sort of younger and younger elements of society? I mean not just that teenagers get a smartphone pretty early in their lives now, but also you have a teddy bear bot, right. What changes in our brain could be happening when a child thinks that that thing is, well, I guess real?

  • David Ewing Duncan:

    They already exist at a product sort of crude level. It is robot toys that look like teddy bears. But in the future we were envisioning a robot literally raised your kids, it would teach your kids, it would keep them secure, all those different things that we would like for our children. But we immediately got an issues about say, who would program this teddy bot? Would you have factory settings that the company set that made the robot? Would the government have certain parameters? Would you program it to be lenient or strict? And you start getting into politics. I mean, you want to raise a baby or a child based on the parent's politics or somebody else's? And so it's an interesting question not only about children but about how we program all of these robots.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In the future, could this conversation be conducted by a journalism bot, a completely virtual anchor interviewing somebody because it's far more efficient?

  • David Ewing Duncan:

    Well, you know, maybe you are a robot, I don't know. We'll have to see this. I don't think you are, but we aren't quite there yet. But yes there is a journalism bot chapter — I couldn't help that as a journalist — and I was surprised at how far automation is already you know entered the newsroom. In 2016, actually some of the basic election coverage that year was done by A.I. programs that had certain phrases and words and data that had been programmed in. So those stories you were reading thinking a human might have written them, they were already A.I. But yeah I mean I hate to say this for you and me, much of what we do in the future might have at least some A.I. element to it. I happen to think that we will still like to have humans doing things like delivering the news on television. Right now, the economics is what's playing a huge role in all this automation and I hope we we turn a corner on that at some point and start having more of a human element, because you know the bean counters in our profession and many others, you know they're looking at the bottom line and that's what's driving a lot of this right now. So hopefully — in this book is even a bit of a plea or an effort to try to get society to start really thinking this out before we automate everything in sight.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, the book is called "Talking to Robots: Tales from Our Human-Robot Futures." David Ewing Duncan, thanks so much for joining us.

  • David Ewing Duncan:

    Thank you, I appreciate it.

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