Ken Goldberg: Can Robots Inspire Us To Be Better Humans? at TEDxBerkeley (Transcript)

Thank you. It’s been an amazing line-up of speakers today.

We’ve been talking backstage and I just want to say we’ve all agreed that you have been a terrific audience. So I think you all deserve a round of applause for being so great. I know this is going to sound strange, but I think robots can inspire us to be better humans.

See, I grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the home of Bethlehem Steel. My father was an engineer, and when I was growing up, he would teach me how things worked. We would build projects together, like model rockets and slot cars. Here’s the go-kart that we built together. That’s me behind the wheel, with my sister and my best friend at the time.

And one day, he came home, when I was about 10 years old, and at the dinner table, he announced that for our next project, we were going to build a robot. A robot. Now, I was thrilled about this, because at school, there was a bully named Kevin, and he was picking on me, because I was the only Jewish kid in class. So I couldn’t wait to get started to work on this, so I could introduce Kevin to my robot.

(Robot noises) But that wasn’t the kind of robot my dad had in mind. See, he owned a chromium-plating company, and they had to move heavy steel parts between tanks of chemicals. And so he needed an industrial robot like this, that could basically do the heavy lifting. But my dad didn’t get the kind of robot he wanted, either. He and I worked on it for several years, but it was the 1970s, and the technology that was available to amateurs just wasn’t there yet.

So Dad continued to do this kind of work by hand. And a few years later, he was diagnosed with cancer. You see, what the robot we were trying to build was telling him was not about doing the heavy lifting. It was a warning about his exposure to the toxic chemicals. He didn’t recognize that at the time, and he contracted leukemia. And he died at the age of 45. I was devastated by this. And I never forgot the robot that he and I tried to build.

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When I was at college, I decided to study engineering, like him. And I went to Carnegie Mellon, and I earned my PhD in robotics. I’ve been studying robots ever since. So what I’d like to tell you about are four robot projects, and how they’ve inspired me to be a better human.

By 1993, I was a young professor at USC, and I was just building up my own robotics lab, and this was the year the World Wide Web came out. And I remember my students were the ones who told me about it, and we would — we were just amazed. We started playing with this, and that afternoon, we realized that we could use this new, universal interface to allow anyone in the world to operate the robot in our lab.

So, rather than have it fight or do industrial work, we decided to build a planter, put the robot into the center of it, and we called it the Telegarden. And we had put a camera in the gripper of the hand of the robot, and we wrote some special scripts and software, so that anyone in the world could come in, and by clicking on the screen, they could move the robot around and visit the garden. But we also set up some other software that lets you participate and help us water the garden, remotely. And if you watered it a few times, we’d give you your own seed to plant.

Now, this was an engineering project, and we published some papers on the system design of it, but we also thought of it as an art installation. It was invited, after the first year, by the Ars Electronica Museum in Austria, to have it installed in their lobby. And I’m happy to say, it remained online there, 24 hours a day, for almost nine years. That robot was operated by more people than any other robot in history.

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Now, one day, I got a call out of the blue from a student, who asked a very simple but profound question. He said, “Is the robot real?” Now, everyone else had assumed it was, and we knew it was, because we were working with it. But I knew what he meant, because it would be possible to take a bunch of pictures of flowers in a garden and then, basically, index them in a computer system, such that it would appear that there was a real robot, when there wasn’t.

And the more I thought about it, I couldn’t think of a good answer for how he could tell the difference. This was right about the time that I was offered a position here at Berkeley. And when I got here, I looked up Hubert Dreyfus, who’s a world-renowned professor of philosophy. And I talked with him about this and he said, “This is one of the oldest and most central problems in philosophy. It goes back to the Skeptics and up through Descartes. It’s the issue of epistemology, the study of how do we know that something is true.”

So he and I started working together, and we coined a new term: “telepistemology,” the study of knowledge at a distance. We invited leading artists, engineers and philosophers to write essays about this, and the results are collected in this book from MIT Press. So thanks to this student, who questioned what everyone else had assumed to be true, this project taught me an important lesson about life, which is to always question assumptions.

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