The Robots are Watching Us

Have you ever felt like your household appliances are watching your every move and conspiring amongst each other? No? Oh well, I guess that’s just me. It’s exactly what European researchers are hoping to enable though, by building a data sharing service called RoboEarth that automated devices can use to share information between themselves.

To understand why this is useful, imagine a robot arriving at a location that it’s never visited before. If another machine had explored there earlier, the map it had built up would be available on this “robot Internet.” The same system could be used to pass around all sorts of information, from traffic patterns to help robots plan better routes, to the training information about how to best complete tasks.


Image via Wikipedia

The practical applications of this are definitely very exciting, but to a mischievous mind like mine, so are some of the unintended possibilities. If cleaning robots share maps of the locations they work in, wouldn’t criminals be interested in banks’ floor plans? How about the routines of driverless armored cars? Training a machine to perform around our own homes will involve revealing a lot of our private patterns of behavior. Are we always out of the house on Sunday mornings?

ANATROLLER ARI-100 Duct cleaning and Inspectio...

Image via Wikipedia

Even data that is aggregated together can be very revealing. One researcher told me in confidence of a pattern she had noticed in crime data released by a major city, showing that in one area there were never any arrests for drug crimes on a Thursday. She’s kept that under her hat, but that would be very useful intelligence for drug dealers. The more of this sort of information is made semi-publicly available, the more likely it will have unintended consequences like these.

Robot at the Museum of Science and Technology

Image via Wikipedia

I don’t want to be alarmist about this, it sounds like a great project, and to keep things in perspective the volume of information being gathered on us just from our cell phones dwarfs the planned robotic data-sharing. As the Internet of Things gathers steam though, we are going to have a whole new world of security and privacy challenges to think about. So, keep a careful eye on your Roomba

The Robots are Watching Us.

If robots are to become our overlords, they will need their own Internet to communicate with each other. RoboEarth, a just-launched robot information sharing network, gets them that much closer to world domination.

The EU-funded RoboEarth project is bringing together European scientists to build a network and database repository for robots to share information about the world. They will, if all goes as planned, use the network to store and retrieve information about objects, locations (including maps), and instructions about completing activities. Robots will be both the contributors and the editors of the repository.

The point, according to the RoboEarth project, is to allow robots to learn from past experiences and share them with their peers. The site explains:

Rapid development of sensor and networking technology is now enabling researchers to collect vast amounts of sensor data, and new data-mining tools are being developed to extract meaningful patterns. Researchers are already using networked “feed forward” approaches to make significant advances in machine-based learning systems. Thus far, however, these smart feed forward systems have been operating in isolation from each other. If they are decommissioned, all that learning is lost.

With RoboEarth, one robot’s learning experiences are never lost–the data is passed on for other robots to mine. As RedOrbit explains, that means one robot’s experiences with, say, setting a dining room table could be passed on to others, so the butler robot of the future might know how to prepare for dinner guests without any prior programming.

The 35 researchers working on the project expect to be finished within four years. After that, the age of intelligent robots can begin.

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