Should Robots Be Outfitted with Self-Defense?

  • July 15, 2016
  • Feature

By Rick Delgado, Freelance Technology Commentator

Whether we realize it or not, robots are becoming more a part of our lives every day. Many of the tasks we’ve become accustomed to are slowly being taken over by machines with automated capabilities. This provides a lot more convenience for most people, so few will complain about it, but it’s important to note that as robots become more prevalent and capable, they’ll likely require bigger investments from organizations seeking to utilize them. What that ultimately means is that they’re going to want to protect those investments. Could that lead to robots being equipped with self-defense capabilities? In some cases, it’s already happening as there appears to be plenty of reason for going that route.

Those who are most interested in robotics have likely heard of the incident involving HitchBOT. The idea was pretty simple: design a robot that could hitchhike across the United States, depending on the kindness of strangers it crosses paths with. It was a fascinating experiment filled with all sorts of questions and implications. Sadly, the experiment only lasted two weeks. HitchBOT was destroyed shortly into its hitchhiking escapades, decapitated by an unknown person or persons. While little is known of why the assailants did this, without any sort of self-defense, HitchBOT was helpless when attacked, and the experiment was cut short.

That’s just one example, but as robots start appearing more and more, incidents of this kind will likely increase. Outfitting new robots with self-defense can be a solution, but it’s something that gives a lot of people pause. Most of that unease likely comes from Hollywood’s tendency to portray robots as less than kind toward humans. Merely suggesting that robots should be able to protect themselves can raise red flags among the general populace, but designers, programmers, and developers have a number of possible solutions in mind. After all, if robots can carry the latest technologies in flash storage, cloud computing, and data processing, why can’t they have more protective measures?

Self-defense for robots doesn’t need to include the ability to harm those that are attacking it. Many researchers see a protective solution merely by making robots more human-like. In a push to humanize robots, delinquent humans may be less likely to go out of their way to damage them. Attempts to humanize robots include giving them facial features such as eyes and a mouth. Even if the robot itself doesn’t take on a human shape, these subtle features can act as a shield, helping to protect the machine.

In Palo Alto, California, you may see K5 robots patrolling malls, keeping an eye out for possible troublemakers and even making sure fires don’t start. The K5 robots have taken on this humanized approach, with some even referring to the bot as “cute.” But its self-defense capabilities don’t end there. The K5 can let out a high-pitched screech whenever it gets surrounded by others, as seems to happen with children. The screech helps clear the area so the K5 can continue to do its job. At the same time, the K5 can simply stop moving if it gets cornered. The thinking is that if the robot ceases to do anything interesting, people will eventually ignore it, and so far that self-defense tactic seems to do the trick.

Some robots, if they are attacked, can even literally call out for help, as can be seen in Japan. But as of yet, most robots have not been outfitted with anything that might actually harm an assailant. Will that happen some time in the future? That still remains to be seen. As mentioned before, people can get really uncomfortable with the idea of having an armed robot. The most that can probably be expected at some point is a robot that can send out an alert if it’s being attacked. Had HitchBOT been equipped with technology like that, it may have been able to survive or at the least researchers would have more information on what happened. In any case, robots have begun to show up in all their varieties. Finding ways to protect them will quickly become a priority. That will likely require outfitting them with some sort of self-defense, whatever form it may take.

About the Author

Rick Delgado is a freelance technology writer and commentator. Connect with him on Twitter @ricknotdelgaldo.

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