New robotics program focuses on ethics of artificial intelligence

Katy Nelson

Through a new program starting next fall, UT students will create the next generation of accessible robots designed for the average person.  

The new robotics program, called the Convergent, Responsible, Ethical A I Training Experience, won $3 million from the National Science Foundation. Students in the five-year graduate portfolio program will learn about the social impact of robotics and how to make robots accessible for service jobs and different environments, said Peter Stone, director of Texas Robotics, the department spearheading the program.

“We don’t want to create a robot just for the rich,” said Junfeng Jiao, program lead and an associate architecture professor. “We want to create a robot for everyone in our society.” 

The program will target four different purposes in which robots can be useful to the average working person: homes, offices, factories and commercially. Students will then build a robot from scratch to fit one of these categories in a group project.

The faculty involved hope the program can develop helpful robots available to the general public to assist them in everyday life. Jiao said an example would be developing a robot that helps elderly individuals move safely around their home.

When designing robotic systems, Stone said it is important to reflect on who will be impacted both positively and negatively. 

Stone said recently developed delivery robots often obstruct bike lanes, a consequence that disproportionately affects working people to aid individuals who have expendable cash and order food. 

“(The creators) probably didn’t consider whether it would hurt the bicyclists,” Stone said.“That’s one example … of (robots) better for one class of people than other classes of people.”

Companies such as Amazon and Sony said they are interested in hiring students who complete this program, Jiao said. The program includes professors and faculty across different departments such as computer science, architecture and engineering.

“You want to create a robot to solve (problems) and to help everybody in a society. You don’t want to create a robot to just do the dishwasher, mow the lawn and make a bed for the rich guy,” Jiao said. “You don’t want a robot to just know how to move around in your well designed suburban neighborhood. You also want to design robots that know how to move around in high density apartment buildings, or in a rural or rural community.”