A Top Roboticist Says A.I. Will Not Conquer Humanity

Cars will drive themselves, robots will clean your toilet—but exponential progress is unlikely

Brian Bergstein
Jan 4 · 9 min read
Photo by Lane Turner/The Boston Globe/Getty

If you imagine the technologies that will define daily life in 50 years, it’s tempting to think of Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. You might envision the world of 2069 bursting with things we would consider fantastical today.

The problem with that is, technologies don’t just magically appear. They come from the clever refinement and recombination of previously existing technologies. Even when powerful innovations do arise, it can take decades for them to replace old stuff that works well enough.

To wrap my mind around where we’re actually heading, I called Rodney Brooks. Brooks, 64, is both a technological optimist and a realist. He’s the former head of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence lab at MIT and a co-founder of two robotics companies — iRobot, maker of the Roomba floor cleaners, and Rethink Robotics, which until recently made robots that could work closely with people. He also has written extensively about why A.I. is overhyped, and how people misunderstand the uneven pace of technology.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Medium: Where would you begin to think about what daily life will be like in 50 years?

Rodney Brooks: Self-driving cars are going to be a big thing 50 years from now. From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, cities got transformed all over the world by automobiles. We are going to have another transformation of our cities, I think, from autonomous driving and personal transportation, although it may clog things up so much that we’ll get much better public transportation. I don’t know yet.

The city is going to be rather different, and there’s going to be a lot more cities. We’re going to have twice as many people in cities, across the world, as we do now. And then: the impact of climate change, which is undeniable. I was in a hotel just south of D.C., in August, where there were trees, and little village walks, and it was all under a roof, because the climate is so shitty there most of the year. They built a little town that’s part of a hotel. We may see more of that.

What else?

In North America, in Europe, Japan, and China, we are going to be a much older population. In 50 years, Africa’s going to be half the world’s population and is going to be very, very young. So maybe all the innovation will be coming from Africa 50 years from now.

Someone who fell asleep 50 years ago and woke up today probably would be blown away by social changes, medical improvements, and our communications devices. But I don’t think the world would look fundamentally different to that person. If we were to fall asleep now and wake up in 2069, would we feel more lost?

Some things will still be around that look pretty much like they are today. Fifty years ago, we had airplanes with wings, and jet engines hanging off of them. And that’s what our airplanes still look like. They’re much better engines, they’re much more fuel-efficient, they’re bigger planes in general. Way more people fly on them, so there’s a lot more of them. But that hasn’t fundamentally changed in any surprising way.

Now, you point to the iPhone, etc. In the last 50 years, we’ve seen a unique technological change, and that is the sustainment of Moore’s Law. It’s a unique event in history that computation got so much better, on a regular basis, for 50 years. Most people, if you’re thinking about the future, apply Moore’s Law to every technology, which is totally wrong. Moore’s Law was unique in why it could happen, and the whole misunderstanding of that has distorted our view of how things will change in the future.

How was Moore’s Law deceptive?

Moore’s Law was based on the fact that you could change the physical structure [of computer circuits] without changing information content. You could halve the physical structure. Is there a pile of sand on my desk, or not? You take away half the grains, there’s still a pile of sand on my desk. You take away half of the remaining, there’s still a pile of sand on my desk. And we were able to do that, over the 50 years, 25 times or so. Until we got down to a single grain, which is where we are now. And we can’t halve the pile of sand anymore.

“The exponential economy is oversold. There is no process in the universe, ever, that’s been exponential for a sustained period of time.”

We haven’t seen the end of the effect of Moore’s Law, as we figure out how to apply these vast amounts of computation to more and more problems. That’s where it will still have an impact. But there hasn’t been a sustained halving or doubling in any other technology.

So, the idea that we are entering a period of exponential progress — if that were true, there’d be an unbelievable amount of technological change in the world every year.

Yeah, I think the exponential economy is oversold. There is no process in the universe, ever, that’s ever been exponential for a sustained period of time, because you run out of stuff locally to do with it, or to use.

Nonetheless, could it be true that technological change will accelerate now, because there’s still so much room for applications of information technology to diffuse throughout society?

We’re in an exploitation phase. In Massachusetts the year before last, we got rid of toll booths. We didn’t get rid of toll takers by having robots take tolls from people. We used a whole array of digitalized supply chains. You no longer need to have your credit card physically present for transactions. Everyone has access to the web, so you can go and register your transponder to your license plate. And then there is a little bit of A.I. in reading the characters of a license plate, if there’s no transponder, and that relies on the databases of the department of motor vehicles being available to connect the license plate to the address to send the bill, if someone’s not registered. So all these different pieces came together, and they’re all a result of information technology. We’re going to see a lot of exploitation, where new pieces get put together by different players, and it will change the way services work.

But we haven’t had a big breakthrough in artificial intelligence for nine years now. People have said to me, “But of course we’re going to a breakthrough every year.” No, what we’re seeing is exploitation of machine learning at the moment — at a grand scale. I don’t think we can automatically assume we’re going to get breakthroughs on any schedule at all. And that’s another reason I say Moore’s Law was unique. It had scheduled breakthroughs. We haven’t seen technologies with a schedule at any other time.

Is fiction also tripping people up when it comes to understanding the path A.I. is on?

Well, I repeatedly hear people saying, “A.I. is going to take over the world and dominate us,” and they refer to science fiction stories. We don’t read ghost stories and say, “The ghosts are coming! They’re going to take over!” We don’t see “first contact” stories (and say), “The aliens are coming! They’re going to take over!” Because people fundamentally know that they shouldn’t believe in ghosts, or aliens showing up any day. But they get so confused about A.I. that they take science fiction as fact. It’s a little hard for me to understand. But there are many things in the world of humans that are hard for me to understand.

So, is it fair to say A.I. doesn’t even really exist at the moment?

Oh, not in the way that people think of it. Right now, A.I. is a classification system with deep learning; there is no intent, there is no understanding of the world. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) just announced a $2 billion program whose aim, over many years, is to try to give A.I. the common sense understanding of the world that an 18-month-old has. The idea that intelligent, thinking, conniving beings exist in A.I. is total, total, total science fiction. We don’t have anything with the intent of a slug at this point.

Might that still be true in 2069?

Absolutely, it could be.

“The idea that intelligent, thinking, conniving beings exist in A.I. is total, total, total science fiction. We don’t have anything with the intent of a slug at this point.”

Do you think making computers truly intelligent will require them to have a physical presence in daily life; for example, robots moving among us could accumulate more data about the world than what you could simulate in a server or in a data center.

That’s certainly what I have been arguing since the 1980s. It’s what Alan Turing suggested, in 1948, in a paper of his that didn’t see the light of day till 1970. I think, ultimately, getting a robot a simple grounding in reality will require a physical presence. But I may be wrong.

Could it possibly require some blending of biological material and electronics, computers with living cells, or something like that?

It may. My next blog post is going to talk about that, actually. My dining room table is covered in books and old papers as I’m trying to figure this one out.

Back to self-driving cars, and whether they’ll be everywhere in 2069. So far, the rollout has gone slower than some companies have promised.

Well, we’ve already passed some of the deadlines when they said we’re going to have autonomous cars on the road. And if you look carefully over the last six months, what you see the big players saying is, “Our first rollout is going to be in a geographically isolated or bound area, under good weather conditions.” And some of them are saying all the human-driven vehicles in that space will be shuttles driven by employees. So, it’s not having to interact with the general public driving. And many of the rollouts are in places where the vehicle can afford to stop dead in its tracks at any point and not cause an accident. You can’t do that on the freeway — you cannot stop dead.

So, on campus-like environments, they changed it from a dynamic problem to a static problem, at least initially. And I think that’s smart. I’m not saying that we won’t get there in the future, but it’s going to take a lot longer, and a lot more experience. It may require transformation of our cities, and our roads, to get it everywhere.

How likely is that? If the existing infrastructure works well enough, it doesn’t always get replaced when a better technology is available.

No, it doesn’t. We’ve had self-driving trains for 40 or 50 years and we haven’t put many on. We’ve got 15 self-driving train systems in the U.S., mostly in airports.

One of the companies you co-founded, Rethink Robotics, shut down this fall because demand was too soft for its collaborative robots that could work alongside people in factories and packaging facilities. How does the fate of Rethink shape your thinking on the uneven pace of technological development? This particular company didn’t work out, but the broader idea behind it feels like a winner over the long term.

The way I’m starting to think about it now is in terms of the Segway.

The Segway was a radical idea: an electrical personal transportation device. But it wasn’t what took off. Now, we’re starting to see personal transportation devices take off — these electric scooters that are everywhere in some cities. Segway got some things right, but they didn’t get other things right. For instance, under the Segway model, each individual owned the device, and had a pretty high capital cost, $5,000 to get one. These scooters are much lower capital, much lower mass, and you don’t own one, you just rent it by the minute, or 10 minutes or whatever. So the idea of a personal electric transportation device was pioneered by Segway, but didn’t have everything together to make it widely adoptable.

Will the homes of 2069 have robots doing chores?

I think we will have more robots cleaning, and more than just the floors. Toilet bowls will be cleaned by robotic devices, but they might be permanently attached to each toilet, rather than wandering around. I’m pretty sure our rooftop solar panels and our windows will be cleaned by robots. And our indoor personal “farms,” growing fresh food on site, will be tended by robotic devices.

Whether people think of the devices that do it as robots is another matter. Remember in the 1970s when computers were in magnetic tape cabinets? If we said that we’d have computers in our kitchens in 20 or 30 years, people, thinking about the magnetic tape cabinets, would have said “no way.” But, of course, we do now have lots of computers in our kitchens — I have them in my oven, my microwave, my dishwasher, my fridge, my Alexa, and quite possibly some in the lighting system that I haven’t identified — but they don’t look anything like those 1970s mainframes. Likewise for the robotic devices populating our houses in 50 years. They won’t look like what we imagine robots look like today.

Brian Bergstein

Written by

I’m a journalist in Boston. I’ve been executive editor of MIT Technology Review and tech & media editor at the AP. I’m editor at large at NEO.LIFE.

Bionic brains. Robots. Cutting-edge efforts to blunt the effects of climate change. The future of health care, and tech, and business. Our January issue of Medium magazine — 2069 — draws on reporting, expertise, and imagination to predict what life will be like in the next 50 years.

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