Century of Robotics: Can a Coffee Maker Rule the World?
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall (Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia)
List of speakers

On March 12, 2019, the Valdai Discussion Club hosted an unusual expert discussion on the issues of robotics, titled “Robotization in the Modern World: A Global Threat or New Opportunity?” There is little factual basis for the well-known fear that machines could one day challenge the primacy of man in the world, change all the foundations of international politics and become the main tool in warfare: man remains in the centre of decision-making, and war has long ceased to be an engine of progress. If robots pose a threat to humans, it is that they may one day replace us in doing boring, dirty and dangerous jobs.

As soon as we speak about robots, the question immediately arises – what exactly can be considered a robot? According to the moderator of the meeting, Valdai Discussion Club Programme Director Ivan Timofeev, since the days of old-fashioned science fiction, the perception of ​​robots has gradually evolved: yesterday’s “hulks” have been replaced with something that could have a greater impact on international politics, economics and security. 

The validity of this point was confirmed by Vladislav Shershulsky, Microsoft Russia’s technology policy director. “If only recently the robot was a physical object in conjunction with software, now evolution is moving towards what could be called ‘intelligent services’: the Internet of things and cloud technologies are united,” the expert said. “Today, a robot may look like a smart home, or a tsunami or earthquake alert system with thousands of sensors across the continent, or another highly distributed system.” The image of what can be called artificial intelligence is inevitably changing: it is no longer a single purposeful development, but rather the result of the evolution of a large number of commercial services that are compatible with consumer demand. “Now, in connection with this, a lot of other issues arise – workplaces for robots, the question of responsibility for the harm caused by them or the distribution of benefits. Our relations with them become similar to relations with domestic animals – and soon they will be similar to relations with intelligent beings,” the expert concluded. 

Alexey Yuzhakov, CEO and Chairman of the board of directors of Promobot, shared his own experience and vision with the audience. The company supplies robots to 27 countries and produces both components and software independently. “I often say that the main thing that we have is 450 robots sold, this is an expert evaluation, how people react to our robots,” the executive said. “This is a large amount of data.” Today, he said, everyone agrees that without artificial intelligence – that is, self-study and decision-making – robotics is impossible. In his opinion, the idea that it is impossible to replace a person with a robot is erroneous. However, this is actually good news: “First off, robots will replace us in doing boring, dirty, dangerous work.” A similar problem arises when defining the term artificial intelligence: it can be “weak,” it can reach the human level or exceed it. According to Yuzhakov, “weak” AI already has a permanent presence – for example, when operating an aircraft, the full participation of a pilot is limited to just four minutes of flight. 

Both experts contradicted popular beliefs when critiquing the relationship between advancements in robotics and political security. “Do not confuse technical autonomy with political autonomy,” Shershulsky said. “Managing a coffee maker does not affect the powers of local government bodies and does not depend on how you interpret the concept of sovereignty. The existence of a global market does not affect the need to ensure critical infrastructure safety.” The main problem is not an attack from the outside, but weaknesses and loopholes that can be used by people who have direct access to the technology, as happened with nuclear power plants that used Siemens software. “The main opportunity to prevent such events is to become leaders, so that our equipment and our hardware will be distributed around the world,” Yuzhakov said. 

As for the possible use of robots for military purposes, the experts agreed that fears regarding armies of robots or “machine uprisings” are greatly exaggerated. According to Shershulsky, military science ceased to be a driver of technical progress half a century ago. “The most dangerous thing for sovereignty is the idea that if we protect ourselves from the rest of the world, everything will be fine. It doesn’t affect the level of risk at all,” the expert said. “The decision-making centre in any military conflict in any case will not be technology, but a human being, and you need to ‘hack’ him first of all,” Yuzhakov agreed. “With respect to military activity, we are talking about decision-making manipulation; the war shifts to personalities.” 

Anyway, the most important thing is not to allow such fears toward artificial intelligence to close the window of opportunity. From the point of view of new venues for progress, Russia has its advantages, and now, according to the Valdai Club experts, it is important not to go too far with legislation and leave business a space for cooperation and self-regulation.