IEs, Robots, and Lawyers

By Lew Cox

In 1942, I believe, Isaac Asimov introduced his Three Laws of Robotics.  In general, the Three Laws are stated as (reference any search engine or Wikipedia for some background): 

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. 

A prolific science fiction author, Asimov used the Three Laws in many of his novels and throughout his “I, Robot” anthology. Reputedly, he tweaked the laws slightly as his stories developed. As robots evolved and their responsibilities increased into governing human civilizations (in science fiction), Asimov added a Zeroth Law to precede the others.  The Zeroth Law is  

0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. 

Interestingly enough, it was not until 1956, when Unimation was founded, that the idea of a capable industrial robot came to fruition. Unimation’s first robot was built in 1959, and the first Unimation robot was installed at GM in 1961 (again, see Wikipedia or other search). At some point after the industrial robot actually came into being, Asimov’s laws were applied/adopted to the field of industrial robotics, even though the laws were formulated before industrial robots existed. 

What does the above short history have to do with an industrial engineering newsletter? The short answer is “a great deal!” Industrial engineers have been involved in the development of robots and robotics systems from their inception. IEs’ training in efficiency and effectiveness in product and process design, in human/machine interaction, in the melding of human-driven and machine-driven components in work envelopes and plant layouts, in taking account of both humans and machines in work studies, etc., almost ad infinitum, has been invaluable. 

Are we about to see a resurgence of interest in the Laws of Robotics and their application at a different level? Most likely. Will the definitions surrounding the word “robot” continue to expand and evolve?  Most certainly. Consider, for example, the following:

Of late, there has been an increasing amount of publicity for automobiles with “parking assist” as well as much attention to the first attempts at self-driving vehicles. These are vehicles that find their own way from point A to point B, maneuvering between and among humans, other animals, and other vehicles, without crashing into and/or destroying/killing any of them. They are not robots, but are in a broad sense, robotic. The thought of our roads being populated with self-driving cars has led to articles such as in the Dallas Morning News, titled “Should we put robots on trial?” ( March 17, 2013). The article’s question is valid. With more capability by robotic cars (as an example) comes more complexity. With more complexity comes more opportunity for component failure, whether that component is mechanical, electronic, or software. With any component failure in a self-driven, self-controlled, self-guided vehicle weighing a couple of tons, plus the ensuing concomitant damage, comes the certainty people will start using the Indian word, "Sioux!" 

In general, any modern mechanical or electro-mechanical device will have one or more CPUs and accompanying software. The device’s software may communicate with a variety of other software in the same or other machines (GPS, et al.); may make independent vehicle decisions on braking, swerving, or other evasive actions; and is increasingly susceptible to hacking from a distance. Industrial engineers must be involved in the entire process from idea to product and process design, to software design and implementation, to quality and fail-safing, all the while thinking of keeping the entire system green from cradle to grave. 

The above are formidable responsibilities. By aptitude, academic training, and work experience, IEs are best qualified and greatly needed in today’s and future applications of “robots,” in the broadest definition of the word.