Autonomous vehicles, package delivery drones, automatic grocery restocking units: these examples of emerging robot technology are vastly different from previous task-specific devices like your Roomba or even industrial assembly-line robots. That difference involves their need to interact with our world to safely perform their complex tasks while coping with our unpredictability. They need to learn how to behave to get along with us.
In What to Expect When You’re Expecting Robots, Laura Major and Julie Shah focus on the importance of relationships between working robots and their uncertain environment, especially humans. The authors’ experience includes robotics for the aerospace, military, and autonomous vehicle industries. Their consideration of robot behavior incorporates examples across industry and academia.
We are shown connections from past human/automaton collaborations from aviation and process control to today’s commercially-available smart robots. In parallel with technological innovation, they also expound on the related sociology and human-factors engineering that accompanied it.
As a product development professional, I found that the book contained numerous gems for me that apply outside the realm of Robotics. One such example involved NASA’s classification of events based on how decisions get made, which could help guide any automation design. Type II events, those foreseeable events where we can’t predetermine the correct response, can’t be automated. Still, we could enhance the human response by focusing only on the most relevant information. This principle could be applied to improve the design of a web app used to manage and monitor a communication network, for instance, where automation can mitigate many network failures. When a Type II event occurred, the UI could focus on that failure and filter the control elements to only those relevant to the human operator for problem-solving the error. In this case, the goal is to facilitate more effective creative problem-solving, which is a strength the human excels at over any current artificial system.
I initially picked this book to read because I am deeply interested in the relationship between Artificial Intelligence and Humans. Well, that plus the brightly colored cover with the tongue-in-cheek title harkening back to a universal parenting book and the cute robot-child on it. I found an accessible exploration of the social, environmental, and policy issues to tackle so that automation and robotics can continue to make our lives better by complementing our strengths.
This book should be required reading for anyone involved in products that incorporate AI, machine learning, or robotic technologies. I recommend it to anyone interested in or worried about technology and its impact on society.