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Autonomous robots

Autonomous robots

During my holiday, I observed an autonomous vehicle in action. H and I rented part of a lovely house in the Thuringian Forest with a garden. We often sat outside to enjoy the view. The garden was four metres by 12, edged with flower beds, sometimes curved. All edges were marked by small paving stones. Halfway along one side, a squat orange and black lawnmower sat in its docking station. Nearly every day, it would start to mow the lawn. When it encountered an edge, it would careen off in a different direction, quickly hitting another edge, and heading off somewhere else. We tend to think machines are more methodical than we are, but most humans would probably have walked up and down in straight lines whereas this machine was more like a drunken sailor, and about as capable. H simulated the human approach in 15 minutes, whereas this machine needed an hour. It could not cut the grass evenly, nor could it trim edges. Sometimes it banged up against the paving stones, beeped plaintively, making several attempts before it found grass again. Sometimes it stopped completely, unable to move until its owner intervened. The cat, H and I stayed safely on the paving stones.

Maybe like some other household appliances, it reduced family arguments about whose turn it was to mow the lawn, or wash the dishes. But just as with dishwashers, maybe this expensive lawnmower raised standards, displaced work from mowing to caring for the machine, and shifted the burden of work from one family member to another.

This simple device had one task. The owners had to adjust the environment to the machine, by carefully placing stones to ensure the machine did not end up in the pond. They had to empty it of grass cuttings, and make sure its battery was charged. Machines are never autonomous. They always require human care and work. Imagine how much more work will need to be done to extensive road systems or quirky homes to help self-driving vehicles or care-giving robots navigate their environments so that they do no harm.

Sally Wyatt, professor Digital Cultures at Fasos

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