The Google Driverless Car: “A Cool Thing that Matters” by Alexa Peseri

Abstract: Google is a company that prides itself on doing “cool things that matter.” One of the company’s most recent ventures is the development of a driverless car. This article explores the way in which the Google car operates, as well as the reasons for Google’s investment in such technology. Google’s vehicle is a robot-controlled Toyota Prius outfitted with several radar sensors, cameras, and laser range-finders to observe traffic. Refined software navigates routes by way of Google Maps. The car offers many potential safety benefits, has been thoroughly tested, and performed well on road tests of over 500,000 miles in length. If the car succeeds in more extensive tests, it will be feasible to reproduce and sell on the market. Although the driverless car has performed well thus far, more fine-tuning must still be done. Potential issues include accidental shut-off, flat tires, cyber security, and liability. However, these issues would be nearly outweighed by possible benefits. If proven safe, the driverless car would provide vast benefits to the automobile industry, and to consumers, in the areas of safety and time-management [1]

1. Chea, T. California governor signs driverless cars bill: [Internet] The Associated Press; 2012 Sep 26 [cited 2013 Feb 2]; Available from:–finance.html

The Driverless Car: What is it, and how does it operate?

Picture a car driven with superhuman vision, instantaneous reflexes, and up-to-date knowledge of roads across the United States. You’re probably picturing something from The Bourne Identity or The Terminator. In fact, Google is developing a car that is almost exactly that. It’s called the Google Car and is driven by a robot. With radar sensors for eyes and ears, range finders for awareness of surrounding cars, and Google maps at its fingertips, the Google Car may come to redefine the American automobile. It could enhance the safety of roadways, provide a new driving experience, and even allow the handicapped to travel independently. The car has been thoroughly tested, and performed well on road tests of over 500,000 miles in length. If the last legal and technical hurdles can be overcome, the Google Car has the immense potential to revolutionize travel on the roadways of the world [1].

The most common model of a Google car takes the form of a robotically controlled Toyota Prius. The Toyota Prius is a fully hybrid electric mid-size hatchback, which uses a combination of gasoline and electric battery for power, thus reducing carbon emissions and improving mileage. The year that Google began work on the robot car, the Toyota Prius was ranked #1 most fuel-efficient mid-size car [2]. It has continued to perform well, and has maintained its top rating in 2013 [3]. In addition to Toyota, Audi and Lexus have also embraced the “hands off” approach, as they have also partnered with Google engineers to make self-driving versions of the Audi TT and Lexus RX450h [4]. Google has outfitted these otherwise traditional vehicles with several radar sensors, cameras, and laser range-finders to observe traffic. Advanced software analyzes this data and makes decisions that control every aspect of the car, from steering and navigation to acceleration and braking [1].
Currently, a human “driver” must still be present in the vehicle, with the ability to enable a manual override at any time [1]. A blind person is capable of overriding the car in this way, assuming the fault condition is not detected automatically. If done manually, the driver has to use an emergency stop button, although systems may vary, depending on the model of automobile [5]. Cars can also be overridden by external sources. A system similar to the type used by air-traffic-controllers could be adapted to monitor safety of autonomous vehicles. Employees working in call centers would be able to anticipate issues that drivers may encounter in their future travels. In relation to autonomous cars, such issues may include impending traffic jams, dead end roads, or changes in route due to construction zones. External monitoring is advantageous in that it introduces a level of perception that the average human driver could never have. In this way, potentially unsafe situations can be avoided, and the safety of the “hands off” driver, as well as the other drivers on the road, is greatly enhanced [6].
The question arises: how comfortable will drivers of autonomous vehicles be, knowing that someone else can control their cars? Cruise control is a comparable advancement in technology. Drivers initially resented their loss of control following the advent of cruise control, but were eventually placated by its efficiency and safety benefits. More recently, researchers have been studying acceptance of adaptive cruise control, which is a step beyond the generic one, in that the system adjusts speed as a function of distance to the car in front of it. Studies have shown that fuel savings and safety considerations seem to be the major motivators to accept adaptive cruise control [7]. “Adaptive cruise control can be seen as a transition to the self-serving car,” said Betram Malle, a professor of psychology in the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences at Brown University. Another example is that of the seat belt, which was not universally accepted when first released. After the public realized the safety benefits of seatbelts, however, their use increased and was eventually made mandatory by law. Indeed, safety concerns can often prompt the general public to give up some sense of individual autonomy, and if extreme enough, lead to government intervention [6]. Perhaps the safety benefits of driverless cars will one day motivate the government to draft legislation that prohibits manual driving. Gary Marcus, a writer for The New Yorker, exclaimed, “Within two or three decades the difference between automated driving and human driving will be so great you may not be legally allowed to drive your own car” [8].

Inspiration for the Google Car:

The concept of a driverless car might seem like a novelty to many, but it has in fact existed for decades. A notable example is Mercedes-Benz’s robotic van, designed by Ernst Dickmanns and colleagues at the Bundeswehr University of Munich, in Munich, Germany. In the early 1980s Dickmanns’ team equipped a 5-ton Mercedes-Benz van with cameras and sensors, similar to the inputs in today’s driverless cars. These and other technologies made it possible for steering, acceleration, and breaking to be controlled via computer commands. Mercedes’ robot car, “VaMoRs,” drove entirely on its own in 1986 and reached speeds up to 96 km/h, or roughly 60 mph, the following year [9] Currently, Google, Bosch LLC., Continental, the Volkswagen Group, Volvo, Audi, Lexus, and others have made notable progress in the realm of autonomous vehicles [10].

Google began working on its first model of an autonomous vehicle after Sebastian Thrun, founder of Google’s Street View, won the Pentagon’s 2005 DARPA challenge with his driverless car named Stanley [11]. The DARPA challenge is a federally sponsored competition for autonomous vehicles. Initially founded with the purpose of developing technology for the military, it has since expanded to include vehicles for commercial use. The team leaders of winning vehicles from DARPA challenges in several recent years, as well as Anthony Levandowski, the man who built the first driverless motorcycle, are all working together on Google’s team [12].

Getting the Green Light:

Nevada was the first state to approve driverless cars on roadways in June 2011, which allowed Google to begin testing [4]. Florida was the next to follow suit, doing so in April of 2012 [13]. In September of 2012, Governor Jerry Brown of California signed legislation that created safety and performance regulations to test and operate driverless cars on state roads and highways [1]. State laws such as these have allowed Google to test its car thoroughly, and it has performed flawlessly on over 500,000 miles of road tests. The development team has driven cars on winding and traffic-heavy roads, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as San Francisco’s infamously meandering Lombard Street [4]. The only Google Car accident recorded thus far was a minor fender-bender in 2011, which occurred while a human was manually operating the car [14].
In order for the Google Car to drive across the country, it will need the permission of all the states, or blanket permission from the federal government. Considering that the DARPA challenge is federally sponsored, the car will likely be given federal permission to be sold and driven across state-borders, contingent on its road-test performance. In 2012, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator, David Strickland, said, “The development of automated vehicles is a worthy goal” [15]. He explained that the federal government is beginning to look into the safety regulations that would be needed for a country in which driverless cars dominated roadways [15].

Leave It to the Robots:

In 2012, Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin stated, “Self-driving cars will be far safer than human-driven cars” [1]. Considering that human error is the cause of over ninety percent of automobile accidents, he may be correct. In addition to the Google Car’s finely tuned sense of direction and quick reflexes, it offers an escape from several common human distractions, such as text messaging, tiredness, and drunkenness [1]. Not only is the car safer, but it is also a more accessible mode of transport for the handicapped, especially the blind. The car has already been tested with a blind driver inside. Regarding his experience, Steve Mahan, who is blind, exclaimed, “Where this would change my life is to give me the independence and the flexibility, to go to the places I both want to go and need to go, when I need to do those things” [16]. As mentioned above, when operated by its internal technology, the autonomous car has kept a flawless driving record. The spread of driverless cars will create a positive feedback loop in which a greater number of such cars will result in fewer accidents, validating their safety, and subsequently increasing their popularity. This will lead to an increased number of Google driverless cars, other reliable driverless cars on roadways, and even fewer accidents. The overall result will produce a ripple effect, whereby all drivers, including those who manually operate their cars, will experience safer roadways.

Troubleshooting and Potential for Malfunction:

For all its promise, Google’s robot car is not perfect. Some potential issues revolve around accidental shut-off, flat tires, cyber security, and liability. Google’s current focus is on improving sensors and hardware failure support. Sergey Brin drew a parallel between air travel and driving—the technology in both driverless cars and airplanes may experience system failure. Unlike airplanes, however, the robot car eliminates the possibility of human operational error [17]. Currently though, air space is a more tractable domain for autonomy because it is highly controlled and regulated. The analogy between air and road travel is thus an abstract fit. Both modes of travel face the potential of exceptional errors, but these errors become magnified on public roads. Much of air travel is currently automated, with pilots and Air Traffic Controls to assist with actions such as landing, and to take care of and to prevent problems that might arise. In contrast, autonomy on public roads faces many computational problems regarding uncertainty in sensing and perception, predicting and reacting to what pedestrians and other cars might do, and other aforementioned issues. Therefore, autonomous cars are currently still far from achieving the one in ten million chances of fatal harm that have been achieved by the top 39 airlines [18]. As aforementioned, if a system similar to the type used by air-traffic-controllers could be created for driverless cars, many road and driving errors will be foreseen, eliminated, and overall, decreased.

Google’s engineering team is especially focused on preparing the car for rough conditions in which the cars may experience difficulties. For example, snow makes it difficult for the cars to “see” the lane markers and other cues needed to maintain safe positioning on the road. The team is working to equip the car for snowy terrain, construction signals, snow-covered roadways, temporary construction signals, and other tricky situations, such as detours, that many drivers encounter [19].

Another major obstacle is that of temporary changes in routes, due to construction and accidents. Such road changes may fail to be reflected in the car’s onboard “map,” causing the car to become lost [14] As mentioned above, however, humans working to monitor the driverless cars from afar would be able to foresee these road changes, and notify the cars and their respective drivers. In this case, the human driver can then switch to manual control. This issue is also being addressed is through a collective database. Google self-driving cars communicate with each other, which makes it only a matter of time before the change gets mapped, and cars no longer get lost. The more Google cars there are on the road, the quicker the issue will be fixed. Some may argue that this level of computer communication is sensitive to human hackers. “I think any system is vulnerable, at some level,” said Odest Jenkins, a Computer Science Professor at Brown University, whose research focuses on robot learning from demonstration, or Robot LfD. Such hacking has not been demonstrated yet, and if released onto the consumer market, driverless cars will be armed with software and humans to working to try to prevent such devastating interference [6].

Additional challenges may manifest themselves in the form of construction zones, accident zones, and situations involving human traffic directors [1]. Driverless cars have no issue interpreting traffic signals, speed limits, and proximity to other cars, but may have difficulty understanding a human directing traffic with hand signals. The cars may become confused when a human’s hand signals conflict with a traffic light or stop sign. To fix this, Google’s engineers are exploring ways to teach the car how to interpret a person’s hand signals, and when to obey those, rather than traffic lights. Indeed, several robotics programs across the country are working to hone a robot’s gesture and person recognition. One such program, unaffiliated with Google, exists at Brown University, where the Brown Robotics Group has partnered with i-Robot Corporation. Researchers from both places are working on enhancing gesture and person recognition [5] Various “robots,” in the form of cars as well as smaller-scale technologies, have been designed to recognize motions performed in different ways by many humans, but not with 100% accuracy. Hand signals may vary from person to person, traffic cop to traffic cop, making this is an essential obstacle to be overcome [5].

Costly Cars:

While the Google car and others like it may have mastered steep roadways, they also come with steep price tags. Approximately $150,000 in equipment is needed for each Google Car. That figure includes a $70,000 LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) system. LIDAR is the beam technology that equates to the car’s “eyes” on the road [19] Prior to the development of LIDAR technology, the highest performing driverless cars were said to operate autonomously for approximately ninety-nine percent of the time. Considering the many hours that an average individual drives in a year, the remaining one percent is actually somewhat significant. LIDAR’s hefty price tag thus comes with great innovation, because it increases autonomy of the vehicle from 99, up to 99.9 percent, by providing high definition, nearly three-dimensional information about the surrounding environment. The unit spins, while various lasers are emitted to collect distance-sensing data [6] Although very valuable, LIDAR systems make the car too expensive for most consumers, as well as for some of the companies trying to develop driverless cars. Several auto industry suppliers, as well as Chris Urmson, who has worked on the Google Car, have promised that reasonably priced LIDAR and other comparable technology systems are on their way [20] LIDAR systems are currently being manufactured on the scale of 100’s and 1000’s, but if this is increased to 100,000’s and greater, the cost will decrease through the economies of scale, and LIDAR will become cheaper [6]. Fortunately, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) values the potential safety benefits of driverless cars and has thus decided to invest in the accompanying technology. This will likely produce more cost-effective, and eventually, affordable systems, at least for the middle and upper socioeconomic classes [20].

Although Google’s car has received the most publicity, several other companies have been working to build driverless cars. Some of these companies have reduced input costs by choosing to outfit their cars with fewer lasers. Velodyne, the company contracting with Google and several other driverless car projects, has developed an HDL-64E system with 64 lasers, and an HDL-32E system, with 32 lasers. The latter is less precise, but still far more perceptive than humans. It is less expensive than the HDL-64E, and has been used successfully by a number of companies [21]. Continental is one such company, which has outfitted a VW Passat with more affordable technology. However, Continental’s car has only been tested on 10,000 miles of road, as compared to Google’s nearly 500,000 miles [20].

The issue of liability is one of the critical and unresolved questions about autonomous cars. If insurance companies realize how much more prone to error human drivers are than robots, they are likely to increase premiums on manually driven vehicles. As a result, those without automated cars may have higher premiums than those who do own automated cars [14] This could eventually create a problem of the haves and have-nots, in which members of lower economic class cannot afford the expensive autonomous cars, and will thus be unduly burdened with higher insurance premiums [5]. Premium adjustments such as this are consistent with other safety features that have lowered premiums, such as Anti-Lock-Braking-System, (ABS) brakes and air bags [22].

Robot Cars Displacing Human Driver Jobs:

If the technical, liability, and legal issues are all resolved, robot cars may soon take away chauffeurs’ jobs. Autonomous vehicle technology will eventually move beyond traditional SUVs and sedans, to trucks, buses, and agricultural vehicles, thus reducing and possibly eliminating the need for drivers of public transportation, school buses, and other means of transportation. Professor Jenkins explained that the military is likely to be the first to take advantage of autonomous cars, followed by “smart public transportation,” and ultimately consumer vehicles. There will most likely be a gradual phasing out of the demand for humans employed as drivers, in all sectors of automobile transportation [5]. While demand for human drivers will decrease after driverless cars permeate the world of public transportation, the need for manufacturers of autonomous vehicle inputs, as well as for people to monitor the cars and to invoke overrides, will increase. Driverless cars will likely create more jobs than they destroy [6].

The Road Ahead:

The development of the Google Car is certainly in line with the company’s overall mission—“help solve really big problems using technology” by “doing cool things that matter.” Automobile safety is a significant issue in today’s world; in 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recorded upwards of 5.4 million police-reported motor vehicle crashes in the United States [23]. As mentioned above, over ninety percent of crashes, (4.86 million in 2010) are due to human error [1]. The Google Car has the potential to eliminate human error and drive us down a road with increased efficiency and security [12]. Google’s driverless car offers many potential safety benefits, has been thoroughly tested, and performed well on lengthy road tests. Currently, the car can flawlessly pick up its driver and passengers, commute to work, and run errands, all via highways and neighborhood streets. Eventually, the technology will likely evolve to handle a greater variety of situations. Ultimately, the Google Car may serve as a fully-automated and competent chauffeur [14]. Advancements to increase safety measures and hone person recognition abilities are under development. If realized, the driverless car is expected to permeate the market in a matter of decades, thus improving safety for all drivers.


[1] Chea, T. California governor signs driverless cars bill [Internet]. The Associated Press; 2012 Sep 26 [cited 2013 Feb 2]. Available from:–finance.html

[2] United States Department of Energy. 2005 Compare Side by Side: Fuel Economy [Internet]. Environmental Protection Agency; 2005 [cited 2013 March 2]. Available from:

[3] United States Department of Energy. 2013 Most and Least Efficient Cars [Internet]. Environmental Protection Agency; 2013 April 11 [cited 2013 March 1]. Available from:

[4] Newman, G. A Future Filled with Driverless Cars [Internet]. Insurance Journal; 2013 Feb 11 [cited 2013 Mar 2]. Available from:

[5] Odest Jenkins. 2013. March 26.

[6] Bertam, M., Jenkins, O., & Littman, M. Interviewed by Peseri, Alexandra. 2013. April 11.

[7] Use patterns among early adopters of adaptive cruise control.

[8] Marcus, G. Moral Machines [Internet]. The New Yorker; 2012 Nov 27[cited 2013 April 15] 2012 Nov 27. Available from:

[9] Wikipedia. Ernst Dickmanns [Internet]. Wikipedia; 2013 Mar 13 [cited 2013 April 11]. Available from:

[10] Mariacher, E. 3 driverless cars trends in 2012 [Internet]. Blogger; 2013. Jan 2 [cited 2013 April 13]. Available from:

[11] Haglage, A. Google, Audi, Toyota, and the Brave New World of Driverless Cars [Internet]. The Associated Press; 2013 Jan 16 [cited 2013 Feb 22]. Available from:

[12] Thrun, S. What We’re Driving At [Internet]..Google Official Blog; 2010 Oct 09 [cited 2012 Dec 19]. Available from:
[13] Valdes, A. Florida embraces self-driving cars, as engineers and lawmakers prepare for the new technology [Internet]. News Channel 5: WPTV; 2012 May 7 [cited 2013 Mar 9]. Available from:

[14] Blodget, H. Here Are Some Of The Problems Google Is Having With Its Self-Driving Cars [Internet] Business Insider; 2013 Mar 3 [cited 2013 Mar 9]. Available from:

[15] DiCaro, M. As Gov’t Considers Regulations, Autonomous Car Boosters Show Off Plans.[Internet]. Transportation Nation; 2012 Oct 23 [cited 2013 Mar 17]. Available from:

[16] Author Unlisted. Self-Driving Car Test: Steve Mahan [Internet]. Google Jobs; 2012 [cited 2013 Feb 10]. Available form:

[17] Tam, D. Google’s Sergey Brin: “You’ll ride in robot cars within 5 years” [Internet]. CNET; 2012 Sep 25 [cited 2013 Mar 1]. Available from:

[18] OAG Aviation. OAG Aviation & accident database, 20 years of data (1993 – 2012). [Internet]. OAG Aviation; 2013 [cited 2013 April 4]. Available from:

[19] Urmson, C. The self-driving car logs more miles on new wheels [Internet]. Google Official Blog; 2012 Aug 07 [cited 2013 Mar 2]. Available from:

[20] Priddle, A. & Woodyard, C.: Google discloses costs of its driverless car tests [Internet]. USA Today; 2012 Jun 14 [cited 2013 Mar 14]. Available from:

[21] San Francisco Gate. Velodyne’s LiDAR division doubles production capacity to meet demand [Internet]. Hearst Communications Inc.; 2013 March 11 [cited 2013 April 11]. Available from:

[22] Sochon, P. Best Practice Workplace Driving Safety Programs in NSW. [Internet]. 65th Road Safety Congress; The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA); 2000 Mar 8 [cited 2013 May 7]. Available from:

[23] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Crashes [Internet]. 2010 [cited 2013 April 14]. Available from:

Who Will Drive the Revolution?


“I will remember that artificially intelligent machines are for the benefit of humanity and will strive to contribute to the human race through my creations.”

Lee McCauley’s 2007 proposed a Hippocratic oath for roboticists

The field of robot ethics often focuses on ethical problems with creating robots. But because certain populations are in need of the extra care, protection, or labor that robots provide, it can be unethical not to create robots. The US Congress’s Robotics Caucus Advisory Committee’s 2013 Roadmap for US Robotics documents how robots can improve and even save lives. At work, they can “assist people with dirty, dull, and dangerous tasks;” at home, they can offer “domestic support to improve quality of life;” and in warzones, “robots have already proven their value in removing first-responders and soldiers from immediate danger.” The US government’s National Robotics Initiative (NRI) hopes to encourage robotics in order to boost American manufacturing, space exploration, medical discoveries, and food safety.

Many roboticists share the vision of using robots to solve some major problems the world currently faces. For example, an area receiving particular attention among researchers is elderly care. The number of people over 80 worldwide is expected to double by 2030, leading to increased demands for living assistance. Smart homes and robot caretakers can help these people stay independent longer (1). Even in military use, robots are not necessarily killing machines. iRobot CEO Colin Angle said that his PackBot has saved the lives of EOD technicians by hunting IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq. Furthermore, drones have proven applicable beyond the military: Association of Unmanned Vehicles International CEO Michael Toscano estimated in July 2013 that agriculture would overtake defense as the most common use for drones in the next 10 years, noting that this advancement will help feed an ever-growing population.

Those who fund and use robots can ensure that robots’ potential to do good for the world does not go to waste. An active approach may be necessary because research may otherwise be driven simply by potential profits.


“A profitable market for expensive new technology is not of itself sufficient moral defense for allowing widespread sales.” -Whitby (2012)

The first ethical question in the development of robots is what kinds of robots to make. Are we creating the kinds of robots that our society needs? The answer to this question depends on the motivations not only of researchers but also of their sponsors. The main sources for robotics funding are the government, businesses, and research institutions.

Government funding

The government has played a particularly significant role in robotics funding since 2011, with the advent of the NRI, whose mission is to fund research that facilitates human-robot interactions. Its 2011 and 2012 solicitations were subtitled “The realization of co-robots acting in direct support of individuals and groups” and stated that proposals would be selected by a peer-review process. The National Science Foundation listed the recipients of $30 million of the $50 million awarded for this initiative (the destination of the other $20 million is unclear). The plurality of the projects listed (12 out of 31) named medicine as an application for its robots, including aid in rehabilitation and surgery, followed by domestic care — either general service robots or those geared toward the elderly or incapacitated — and manufacturing, such as industrial robots for use in factories (2).

As part of the NRI, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s FY2012 solicitation for the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (DURIP) encouraged proposals for robotics research equipment applicable the military (Army Research Office). Of the 190 recipients of DURIP grants, which totaled about $55 million, 22 projects involved robots, autonomous machines or vehicles, or artificial intelligence. Many robotics-related projects were not directly or solely applicable to the military, including 3 grants for general human-robot interaction research and 7 for ocean surveillance and research. Others objects of study included the response of miniature air drones to wind and water-splitting catalysts for autonomous energy generation.

DARPA will account for nearly half of the government’s Research and Development funding under Obama’s FY2014 plan. Though this suggests that research applicable to the military may have priority, it does not necessarily mean that the robotics projects DARPA sponsors are primarily for killing. For example, the agency is currently sponsoring a $2 million “Robotics Challenge” in which robots compete in a series of tasks simulating natural and man-made disasters. The press release cites robots that diffuse explosives as an example of the type of innovations DARPA is looking for. The Robotics Challenge has sponsored robots made by universities, companies, and government organizations such as NASA.

However, government funding of robotics has its critics, perhaps the most outspoken being Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn. Coburn criticized a $1.2 million NSF grant to a laundry-folding robot at UC Berkeley and a $6000 grant for a “Robot Rodeo and Hoedown” at a computer science education symposium to introduce teachers to robotics (3). A researcher in the UC Berkeley group countered that the laundry-folding algorithm was a big step for robotics more broadly, and the organizers of the robot rodeo event explained that they were trying to get more students interested in computer science.

Venture Capital Funding

Venture Capital funding is also a major source of funding for robotics. In 2012, the 22 most funded robotics companies accrued almost $200 million total from VC funds (4). Like the NRI funds, the plurality went toward medicine — about $84 million of the money awarded by VC funds went toward companies that create robots for surgery (e.g. MedRobotics and Mazor Robotics), bionics (e.g. iWalk), and hospital service (e.g. Aethon). Another $30 million went to Rethink Robotics for the manufacturing robot Baxter.

Some have criticized excessive funding for entertainment robots, such as a robotic toy car largely funded by Andreessen Horowitz. The car’s maker, the new start-up Anki, raised $50 million total in 2012 and 2013. Anki’s founders believe this investment is justified because their technology can lead to more advanced and affordable robots down the line.

Research institution funding

Universities themselves sometimes fund robotics research, but these funds are often funneled from the sources above — in the United States, particularly the government. The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon, the first and largest robotics department at any US university, lists its biggest sponsors as the Department of Defense, DARPA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the NSF. The Georgia Tech Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines and the MIT Media Lab get sponsorship from companies in the robotics industry in exchange for developing their products. This model appears to be the most common one in Japan, China, and South Korea, according to a WTEC report. Google and other companies have grants specifically for funding technological research, along with private foundations such as the Keck Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

While grants are usually given for specific projects, some departments retain control over which projects their funds go toward. The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon has a budget of $65 million per year, which it has used to fund 30 start-up companies in addition to supporting its own institution. Carnegie Mellon also, along with companies like Google and Yahoo and private donors, sponsors a foundation called TechBridgeWorld that has aided technological progress in developing areas of the world by funding innovations such as an “automated tutor” to improve literacy. This exemplifies how academics and researchers can use their knowledge of what people need and how to most efficiently meet those needs to influence production.


Because robotics companies, like any company, strive to make money, the purchase of robots also affects which robots get made. The International Federation of Robotics estimated that 2.5 million personal and domestic robots (e.g., those that do household chores or assist people with medical problems) and about 16,000 professional robots for use in various workplaces were sold worldwide in 2011. The professional robots consisted mostly of military (40%), and agricultural (31%) robots, but also of robots for other uses like medicine (6%) and manufacturing (13%). The Robotics Industries Association estimated during July 2013 that 230,000 robots were currently in use in United States factories, most often in the automotive industry.

Fifty years ago, we couldn’t imagine computers as part of our everyday lives. Now, we can’t imagine our lives without them. Robots are the new computers, in that they are capable of revolutionizing our society and economy. Whether this revolution is for better or for worse is up to all the aforementioned players.

-Suzannah Weiss

1 Whitby, B. (2012). Do You Want a Robot Lover? The Ethics of Caring Technologies. Robot ethics: the ethical and social implications of robotics. Ed. Lin, Patrick. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012.
2 National Science Foundation (2012). Press Release 12-166: Nearly $50 Million in Research Funding Awarded by NSF-Led National Robotics Initiative to Develop Next-Generation Robotics. Retrieved from
3 Coburn, T., Oklahoma Senator (2011). The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope.
4 Deyle, T. and Kandan, S. Venture Capital (VC) Funding for Robotics in 2012. Hizook: Robotics News for Academics and Professionals.


Getting Robots to Behave

One of people’s biggest concerns regarding the possibility of owning robots is losing control of these robots(1). Getting robots to cooperate with humans is a challenge given the numerosityImage and complexity of the rules governing social conduct. Isaac Asimov illustrated this difficulty in his short story “Runaround,” in which the rules governing a robot’s behavior conflict, cancel one another out, and supersede one another in unpredictable ways. Whether instilling appropriate behavior in robots is the job of its designers or its owners, and whether these behaviors should be intrinsic or learned, is up for debate. What is clear is that we need a better understanding of what guides moral behavior in humans as well as how to program these codes into robots to ensure ethicality and effectiveness.

Advanced social robots may need built-in ethical guidelines for their behavior in order to avoid situations in which robots are used to manipulate or harm people (2). The first step is getting people to agree on what these guidelines are — for example, should robots merely avoid bumping into people, or should they politely evade them by saying “Excuse me”? (3). The next step is implementing these guidelines. Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen’s book Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong describes two approaches to robot morality: programming the robot to predict the likelihood of various consequences of various actions, or having the robot learn from experience and acquire moral capabilities from more general intelligence.

But as it stands, the social abilities of robots are currently very rudimentary (4). According to the 2013 Roadmap for U.S. Robotics, “medical and healthcare robots need to understand their user’s state and behavior to respond appropriately,” which requires a multiplicity of sensory information that current robots have trouble collecting, let alone integrating into something meaningful and utilizing to inform their own behavior. As an illustration, voice recognition features on cell phones often have trouble understanding what the user is saying, and security cameras often fail to recognize human faces (3). The roadmap also mentions the importance of empathy in healthcare, rendering socially assistive robotics (SAR) for mental health problematic. Joseph Weizenbaum, creator of the first automated psychotherapist in the 60s, balked at the idea that his creation, Eliza, could replace a human therapist (5). Today, there are more advanced automated therapist programs, but like Eliza, they mostly echo what the user says and ask generic questions. Therapeutic robots have been more effective in the realm of interactive toys for autistic children, as long as these are viewed as toys and, like any robotic invention, not as replacements for human relationships.

-Suzannah Weiss

1 Ray, C., Mondada, F., & Siegwart, R. (2008) What do people expect from robots? IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, 3816–3821.

2 Scheutz, M. The Inherent Dangers of Unidirectional Emotional Bonds between Humans and Social Robots. Robot ethics: the ethical and social implications of robotics. Ed. Lin, Patrick. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012.

3 Murphy, R. R., & Woods, D. D. (2009). Beyond Asimov: The Three Laws of Responsible Robotics. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 24(4), 14–20.

4 “A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics: From Internet to Robotics.” 2013 Edition. March 20, 2013.

5 Schanze, J. (Director) (2011). Plug & Pray [Documentary]: B.P.I.

Should we model robots after humans?

Children get attached to their toys. They bring them on trips, care for them, ascribe human qualities to them, and even worry about them. As it turns out, adults do too, especially when these toys lend themselves to human empathy. An object triggers an empathetic response when it moves on its own, has eyes, and/or responds to stimuli in the environment. But it doesn’t need to have all these qualities. Two-thirds of Roomba owners have named their automated vacuum cleaner (1). If you’ve ever seen a Roomba, you know it basically just looks like a big disk with some buttons.

Some designers and manufacturers aim for realism in humanoid robots, even believing that these robots will be so realistic as to be sentient. David Hanson, known for extremely lifelike and seemingly emotional robots such as Jules, writes on his website  that his robots have “the spark of soul—enabling our robots to think, feel, to build relationships with people […].” Cynthia Breazeal, a robot engineer at MIT, said that after watching science fiction films as a child “it was just kind of a given for me that robots would have emotions and feelings.” Perhaps because this is interesting to consumers the same way a very exact painting would be, the advantage of this approach is often assumed rather than examined.

Scientists who aim to make robots relatable often justify their approach by pointing out the advantages of people liking and feeling cared for by their robots. Breazeal, creator of cutest-robot-ever Leonardo, said she aimed to design a robot “that understands and interacts and treats people as people.” She believes that robots put to tasks such as household chores and childcare should be able to socialize and respond to humans, just like other humans, so that people can interact with them more easily. The Roomba, she points out, does not recognize people, so it runs into them all the time.

Making machines that treat humans as humans, however, is a slightly different task than making machines that demand to be treated as humans themselves. Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen have been thinking about how to create “moral machines.” For them, this means bestowing robots with the ability to read human emotions and understand human ethical codes. And sometimes it means expressing empathy for people. A semblance of empathy is especially important for therapeutic robots (2).

But while most people want well-behaved robots, some argue that we should not want deceptively human ones. Matthias Scheutz at Tufts is an outspoken critic of social robots. When robots are convincingly human,  they may be not only endearing but also persuasive to humans. Humans may become excessively dependent on and devoted to their robot companions, to the point of feeling and behaving as if these robots are sentient. This gives robots great power over humans, which is especially dangerous if their intentions are not honorable (1).

Science and science fiction alike have acknowledged the complications of human-robot relationships. In the 1991 novel He, She and It by Marge Piercy, a human falls in love with a robot who (spoiler alert) ultimately must self-destruct in battle to fulfill the commands of the people who created him. Renowned roboticist Joseph Weizenbaum explained in the documentary Plug and Pray that he believes love between humans and robots would ultimately be illusory because a robot cannot understand what it is like to have the personal history of a human.

As such a future grows ever nearer, we will have to draw the line between developing robots with the social skills to carry out the desired tasks and creating a deceptive appearance of conscious thought.

-Suzannah Weiss

Scheutz, Matthias. “The Inherent Dangers of Unidirectional Emotional Bonds between Humans and Social Robots.” Robot ethics: the ethical and social implications of robotics. Ed. Lin, Patrick. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012.

2 “A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics: From Internet to Robotics.” 2013 Edition. March 20, 2013.

Humanoids for Human-olds: Sociable Service Robots Could Be the First Wave of the Robotics Revolution

As computer and mechanical engineering becomes more advanced, we are drawing ever closer to a revolution in robotics, and it’s coming just in time. By 2030, the populations of elderly people in the U.S., Japan, and Europe will explode. Worldwide, the number of people above the age of 80 will double. (1) Meanwhile life expectancy is getting higher every day. As fertility rates in these developed countries plunge below replacement rate, (2) the workforce will not be able to support the aging population without dramatic improvements in productivity. However, advances in the burgeoning field of medical robotics may offer a way for the elderly to sustain their health and independence indefinitely. Robots such as the inMotion ARM Interactive Robot™ are on the market today to provide sensory-motor therapy for victims of stroke who are re-learning how to move their limbs. It is not difficult to imagine sensing robots capable of detecting and recording vital signs, administering medicines, and assisting with the tasks of day-to-day living that become difficult at advanced ages. From this perspective, robots have several advantages even over human caregivers. They have more strength, more endurance, more consistency, and importantly, less pity.

However, the introduction of medical and service robots to the elderly presents its own set of challenges. This model deviates from standard paradigms of technology adoption, because the new technology will not be pitched at the younger, more adaptable generation. Because these robots might need to serve people relatively unfamiliar with computer interfaces and operating modes, they must be as understandable and intuitive as the human caregivers they could replace. These service robots must be able to interact socially with their patients.

Fortunately, the field of robotics is one that has long ensnared our narcissistic, anthropomorphic tendencies. One of the dreams of robotics engineers and researchers everywhere is to create an accurate emulation of a human. One such recently created lab devoted to this goal is GENI Lab. Founded in part by RISD alumnus David Hanson, GENI Lab states as its central goal “the creation of a life-sized humanoid robot featuring a realistic, emotional face and personality.“ (3) Hanson (who also took AI classes at Brown!) has gained fame in the robotics community for his daring and extraordinary attempts to overcome what is known in the industry as the Uncanny Valley. Coined in the 1970s, the term refers to the tendency of realistic robots and animations to suddenly become creepy as they approach a human appearance. With Hanson at the head, GENI Lab may be one of the first to achieve this Holy Grail of robotics.

However, creating humanistic robots requires more than just a pretty face. A good HRI relationship should result in emotions, engagement, and trust. The robots must be able to perceive and communicate intent, both verbally and nonverbally. Hanson’s heads might help with the latter requirement, but the former is an open problem. Robots have an unparalleled ability to fuse data streams from multiple sources, and this signature skill allows them to, through the use of Artificial Intelligence, combine various physiological data in order to interpret human emotions and actions. Imagine a robot capable of combining your medical history, current heart rate, previous interaction with your spouse, and what you had for breakfast in order to determine whether or not you are feeling angry – and then easing off on your prescribed exercise regimen for the day. The next big step in robotics is to create an all-purpose AI capable of making these inferential decisions, while simultaneously learning and interacting with humans in a dynamically changing environment.

The use of social service and medical robots to assist the elderly could provide a foothold for robots to gain more widespread acceptance. By filling an otherwise unmet need for full-time caregivers, these robots could form attachments with their patients – who would be able to remain independent longer – and with their patients’ families. By reinventing the public image of a robot as an emotive assistant, this first wave of humanized robot helpers could pave the way for robot assistance in the rest of our society.



1. “A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics: From Internet to Robotics.” 2013 Edition. March 20, 2013.


2. U.N. Economic and Social Council. “World Population to 2300.” 2004


3. “About.” GENI LAB, 2013. Web. 21 June 2013.

Cyber-sentience: detecting “artificial” consciousness

“We already have impressive models and simulations of a couple dozen of the brain’s several hundred regions,” writes Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity is Near.1 But how accurate can these models get before they stop being models, and how advanced can artificial intelligence be before it is no longer artificial?

We are getting closer and closer to creating machines that do all the work of human brains — work that previously required thoughts and feelings. David Hanson’s robot Jules, for instance, mimics not only awareness but also self-awareness when he muses over his identity as a robot in this video. It’s hard not to feel sympathetic to his human-like struggles. Hanson’s website implies that he thinks his robots are or will be sentient: “The Character Engine A.I. software adds the spark of soul—enabling our robots to think, feel, to build relationships with people as they understand your speech, see your face, hold natural conversations, and evolve.”

Though there are robots that realistically portray such mental states, we usually view them as just that: portrayals. The problem is, we are unprepared to identify when these semblances of thoughts and feelings turn into actual thinking and feeling.

Our knee-jerk reaction is still that such robots aren’t at the level of humans. But who says you have to be human to be sentient? Many ascribe consciousness to simpler animals. And many machines have more sophisticated circuitry than many animals. One might argue that animals are biological and thus not a valid comparison, but we don’t know that the stuff of consciousness is biological. In fact, we don’t know what the stuff of consciousness is at all because there is no way of knowing which beings are conscious. We could ask them, but they could lie. We could probe their brains (or equivalent internal circuitry), but there is no way of knowing which objective data indicates subjective experience (though we can make reasonable presumptions based on which brain areas seem correlated with consciousness in humans; see my conclusion below).

Kurzweil suggests that we use the same guidelines we use for humans: We don’t know other people are conscious — called “the problem of other minds” in philosophy — but we give them the benefit of the doubt because of their apparent emotions and social abilities. Many give animals the benefit of the doubt too for the same reason, and because they would rather unnecessarily protect creatures that don’t suffer than harm ones that do. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Robots, started in 1999, offers a similar solution: “the question of self-awareness comes down to an individual leap of faith: ‘I am self-aware, and I see others behaving in similar ways, so I will assume that they are self-aware, also.'”

The loophole I see in these arguments, aside from the fact that attributions of consciousness are necessarily assumptions, is that humans are predisposed to ascribe sentience to beings with certain appearances and behaviors — specifically, those which are human-like. People generally ascribe minds to things that move on their own, have eyes, and react to stimuli.

Terry Bisson critiques biases in other-mind attribution in the short story “They’re made out of meat,” in which (spoiler alert) conscious planetary gases debate whether humans could possibly think, given that they’re just “made out of meat.” The point is, anything could be conscious, but we assume that because we are and this appears to come from our brains, all conscious beings must have (organic) brains. If the possibility of conscious hydrogen seems too crazy, the possibility of consciousness in robots that socialize and express understanding of humans is far less outlandish.

On the flip side of our anthropocentric affinity for beings resembling us, people may easily attribute consciousness to things that aren’t really conscious, even when they know intellectually what sort of being they’re dealing with. For example, people report naming their roombas and feeling guilty that they make them do all the work.2 This can cause psychological trauma when people ascribe minds to machines destined for destruction, such as military drones and IED attackers.2 I remember my 7-year-old self lying in bed at night, worrying about the well-being of my Tamagotchi.

We need guidelines for the ascription of sentience that are more reliable than human instincts. Though in their infancy and incapable of certainty, elaborate theories of consciousness are emerging to help us decide when moral restrictions apply to other creatures. Physicist Roger Penrose has proposed criteria for consciousness that are implementable in organisms and computers, but, he argues, not in their current state: They would need a different mode of causation that follows a different form of physics.

It’s very hard to think of current robots as conscious. But eventually (and possibly soon!), we will have to make a leap of faith in believing in robot minds, like we do with human minds or animal minds. Though consciousness is a subjective experience, I believe we can find reasonable, objective ways for trained professionals to make educated guesses. True, for all we know our pillows hurt when we punch them, but this is a philosophical question far broader than what is necessary to create conscious robots.

For now, this is the safest approach I can see: If sentience seems like a possibility, treat your machines with respect. This assumption prevents harm to something that could be sentient, keeps our consciences clean, and sets an example for the benevolent treatment of living things and property alike — even if we don’t know which we’re dealing with.

-Suzannah Weiss

1 Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Viking, 2005.

2 Scheutz, Matthias. “The Inherent Dangers of Unidirectional Emotional Bonds between Humans and Social Robots.” Robot ethics: the ethical and social implications of robotics. Ed. Lin, Patrick. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012. Print.

Raunchy robotics: the ethics of sexbots

You may have seen recent Kia Forte commercials featuring “Hotbots” — their version of a female sex robot commonly known as a fembot.1 In this ad, it is implied that the owner of the car is using the robot for sex. Kia used a human actress for the robot,2 but such advanced technology is not far off, and robots* for such uses already exist, ranging in complexity from inflatable dolls to realistic-looking and -feeling machines with built-in motion. They are especially popular in Japan and South Korea, where individuals rarely own them because they sell at 6-figure prices**, but rent-a-doll “escort” services make a profit by renting them out to customers.3 There is also a significant following among American men with “robot fetishes” who use fembots as sexual and/or romantic partners.4

Personally, I find the whole practice creepy. But as with any sexual practice, finding something aversive is not a reason to oppose others doing it. In my opinion, though, there are some justifiable reasons one might oppose (if not prohibit) sexbots:

They can promote unhealthy attitudes toward relationships. Those who market sex robots aim to produce, or at the very least encourage, desires for unbalanced relationships in which one has total control over one’s partner (particularly, as it stands now, where men have total control over manufactured women). Teaching people that sex with an unresponsive, undesiring partner is desirable could perpetuate rape culture. One male user raved that the dynamic was “as close to human slavery as you can get.”4

They could be considered prostitutes. South Korean authorities have debated whether rent-a-doll escort services, which were created to dodge prostitution laws, should also be illegal.3

They could encourage gender (and possibly any type of) stereotypes. Manufacturers already ascribe gendered characteristics to other types of robots.5 Sex robots open the door for the promotion of stereotypes of women as submissive fulfillers of men’s desires or “men as perpetually-ready sexual performance machines.”A current line of sex robots has different models representing some problematic stereotypes, such as Wild Wendy and Frigid Farrah (racializing as well as gendering robots).

They could promote misogyny. Fembots are significantly more popular than their malebot counterparts, and they possess traditional “feminine” qualities: submissiveness, adhesion to beauty ideals, and desire (if one could call it that) to please men without any desires of her own. Like the Stepford Wives, fembots allow men to fulfill patriarchal fantasies in which women exist solely to please them. One male user said “the whole idea of man taking charge” attracted him to fembots.4

They may replace real relationships and distance users from their partners or other potential partners. A plurality of Americans polled indicated that sex with a robot while in a relationship is cheating.5 Whether or not it is infidelity, robots designed to meet needs that humans cannot, such as “lack of complaints or constraints,”3 may give humans unrealistic standards to live up to in order to capture their partners’ attention. In addition, having sexual and possibly even romantic interactions that don’t require any effort may discourage users from meeting real people. In addition, people with partners who are “immune .. to their clients’ psychological inadequacies”3 may not address these inadequacies, making it even harder to form real relationships.

Users could develop unhealthy attachments to robots. Unless robots achieve consciousness (which merits a separate blog post), people could develop feelings for robots who don’t feel anything back. This may sound silly, but people already name and dress up their roombas. It is natural for people to develop attachments to sexual partners — whether this applies when the partner is not human remains to be seen — and some even hope for their sexbots to double as romantic partners.4 An asymmetrical relationship of this nature could end up unfulfilling, isolating, or depressing.

Whether sexbots are ethical is a separate issue from whether they should be legal. For countries and US states that ban sex toys altogether, the decision will be obvious. Countries that ban prostitution, like South Korea, may debate whether a machine can be considered a prostitute. Some laws banning sex toys in the US have been struck down on the grounds of privacy, and I suspect these same arguments will come up for sexbots. David Levy, a scholar on the topic, argues that sexbots are no more legally problematic than vibrators.3 But sexbots have raised and will further raise ethical, if not legal, issues specific to their goal of simulating human beings.

-Suzannah Weiss

* It is debatable whether the current generation of sex dolls can be considered robots, but they do seem to be headed in that direction.

**This information may be outdated, as there are currently sex robots on the market for 4-figure prices.

1 “Kia Chalks up Another Ad as a Sexist Fail | About-Face.” About-Face. Accessed June 18, 2013.

2 “2014 Kia Forte Super Bowl Ad Features Sexy Robots |” Edmunds. Accessed June 18, 2013.

3 Levy, David. “The Ethics of Robot Prostitutes.” Robot ethics: the ethical and social implications of robotics. Ed. Lin, Patrick. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012. Print.

4 “Discovery Health ‘Sex Robot Roxy: Sex Robot’.” Discovery Fit and Health. Accessed June 18, 2013.

5 “Robot Sex Poll Reveals Americans’ Attitudes About Robotic Lovers, Servants, Soldiers.” Huffington Post, April 10, 2013.

6. Brod, Harry. “Pornography and the alienation of male sexuality.” Social Theory and Practice 14.3 (1988): 265-84.