Without Transparency, We Can't Trust Robot Operators — Especially in a Pandemic

Vasant Dhar
By Vasant Dhar
The coronavirus pandemic is exponentially increasing the need for robots in our already exceedingly robo-reliant lives. For example, between March 2 and April 14, virtual urgent care visits at NYU Langone Health grew by 683 percent, and non-urgent virtual care visits grew by an unprecedented 4,345 percent in response to COVID-19.

If we continue along this trajectory, our day-to-day lives will become even more robot intensive, with robots increasingly making or advising our decisions. This new reality will offer some benefits. But should we trust the operators of these intelligent robots that are becoming the fabric of our everyday lives? The answer is no, not unless their objective functions and use of data are transparent to society. Specifically, what is their objective function maximizing and based on what data? The alternative is further risk of data misuse and further power concentration of digital platforms.

Our “new normal” has an eerie similarity to the planet of Solaria in Isaac Asimov’s “The Naked Sun,” where phobia of “Earth germs” has virtually eliminated all physical interaction. Communication occurs via perfect holograms that are indistinguishable from reality. Touch, considered dirty, is reserved mostly for essential acts such as procreation. Humans live long healthy lives free of disease, each served by 20,000 specialized robots. Necessary physical interaction requires, yes, six feet of separation.

Read the full article in The Hill.

Vasant Dhar is a Professor of Information Systems.