[Part 2] The second part of our interview with Luca Rigazio, a specialist in self-driving systems and their interaction with humans, focuses on the pros and cons for the future of our society of using robots and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Drones and Robots: ‟Technology can always be misused”

Luca Rigazio, Director of Engineering at Panasonic’s Silicon Valley Laboratory, specialises in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Recently he has been focusing his research on automated systems – driverless cars and highly automated vehicles, robots and drones. L’Atelier met up with him to find out more about what the future holds for these technologies and the role they are likely to play in our daily lives.

The use of drones for delivery services is one of today’s hot topics in the United States. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is expected to table new legislation on this subject by the end of the year. Do you think it’ll soon be possible to order a product on Amazon and have it delivered by drone within half an hour, as the firm suggests in its latest video?

Well, it’s a fact that with modern technology you can get this kind of service up and running very quickly, so the main issue is regulation. But if delivery by UAV is to be legalised, we have to ensure first of all that drones do not pose any safety or security problems. We need to be sure that the drones fly in a well-defined part of airspace where there’s no risk of colliding with human-piloted aircraft and that they won’t come down on the heads of passers-by. The FAA is looking very closely at these safety questions. Recently a drone came close to colliding with a plane approaching JFK Airport, and that’s rather alarming.

flotte de drones

Delivery drones 

What can regulators and drone constructors do to keep this type of incident to a minimum?

Well, legislation has to go hand in hand with the technology. It’s certainly feasible to lay down a rule that any craft over a certain weight has to be fitted with a WiFi chip certified by the federal authorities; this would include a GPS and an altitude sensor. So if an inept or malicious UAV pilot tries for instance to fly his/her drone over an airport, the UAV would basically be prevented from so doing. My sources tell me however that at the present time the US authorities simply intend to make each drone owner register his/her UAV, but that strikes me as just not enough. We’ll know more when the new legislation has been agreed.

You’re also working on the future of robotics: what role could robots soon be playing in our daily lives?

Robots have huge potential, but we still have to find that ‘killer application’, a way of using robots that will lead to their adoption by the general public. In the foodtech field perhaps, with fully automated restaurants? A startup called Momentum Machines is already making burgers through a totally automated process. So we could imagine that the organisers of a concert, festival or other time-limited event would just arrange for large containers of bread, tomatoes, meat, onions, gherkins – basically all the ingredients you need to make a burger – to be delivered and then all that members of the audience would have to do is open an app on their smartphone, order a burger freshly made to their own specifications by a robot and then go over to the stall to pick it up. There’s also enormous potential in the health sector, for surgical procedures for example. And of course a robot doesn’t need to be very smart to be really useful. Take Roomba, for example: it’s a pretty dumb robot that does vacuum cleaning, but it’s proving to be a hit with consumers because it performs a simple task – housework – extremely well.

The potential use of robots for military purposes raises a host of questions. 

Robots also raise quite some issues though. There’s a lot of debate about their potential as job-killers. What other risks do they entail, in your opinion?

Well, the problem with any technology whatsoever is that it can always be misused. By radically changing the way our daily lives are structured, autonomous systems open up myriad opportunities, but they also create a whole host of scary scenarios. What if a hacker managed to take control of driverless cars remotely and send them crashing off the road? Moreover, robotics means that the balance of power that has existed in human society up to now can be overturned, because it is now possible in theory to build an army of robots. UAVs are already being used for military purposes, but soon we could see ground forces made up of robots. So the nature of war will change. Today the main problem the most powerful countries encounter when they go to war overseas is that they cannot win a final victory without sending in ground troops, but the general public always reacts badly to troop losses. If tomorrow the United States could send in robot troops instead of human soldiers that would radically alter the entire situation.

But this doesn’t just apply to countries. For the very first time in the history of the human race, anyone could build his/her own personal army. A gangster could send robots to rob a bank, a terrorist could use robots to set off bombs in a crowd. These are all completely new issues that we’re going to have to think about. So it’s all about exploiting to best effect the many ways in which automated systems can improve our daily lives, while at the same time being aware of the potential risks so that we can counter them.

By Guillaume Renouard