16 December

Two weeks ago the McGill daily had a long rambling article that implied -- in fact more than implied -- that robots from our lab were going to be deployed in Afghanistan. The subtitle of the article was "Robots partly built at McGill set for deployment in Afghanistan." When I saw this, it literally spoiled my dinner. On one hand, it is disturbing to see even a student-run newspaper run an article that included what I see as misleading, naive and potentially damaging content. On the other hand, perhaps I should have just shucked it off as the vagaries of the rumor mill -- much the way movie stars are advised to ignore the yammering insanity of the supermarket tabloids.

The article combined a variety of unrelated facts and a large dose of innuendo to reach a totally unsubstantiated and incorrect conclusion. Our lab has, in fact, focussed on the use of robotics for environmental assessment, specifically the observation of coral reefs, for almost a decade (although we have also thought more recently about applications like monitoring the port of Montreal, or search and rescue). I have often been pleased by the fact that we might be making a tiny step towards making the ocean environment better, at the very least by attracting publicity to the plight of the reefs. The key research we do is based on automated analysis of visual images to allow robots to better interact with humans in their immediate vicinity, for example by allowing human scuba divers to more efficiently program them.

The key elements of the "expose" in the McGill Daily article was that (1) our research grew out of prior research that had been funded partly by the US military/industrial complex, (2) that a McGill professor who quit 10 years ago subsequently worked for a while for a company that also does research funded by the US military, and that (3) some professors someplace at McGill might be getting military funding. Just wait until they hear the bad news about Santa Claus...

Like all science and engineering, our work is built upon the results of others, and one of the important progenitors of our hardware platform was a project that was funded a decade ago partly via DARPA -- the US defense advanced research projects agency. None of this DARPA long-ago funding came to me, my students or my lab, but since we used ideas or technologies from a DARPA project this seems to have been enough for the paranoid authors of the article to draw all sorts of ridiculous conclusions for their hurried little magnum opus. Now, the ill informed might still worry because DARPA was somehow involved in this line of research at some point. Such a worry could only be spawned if somebody failed to recognize the role DARPA has played in US science and technology policy and funding for the last 40 years. DARPA has also funded studies into how the neurons in the brain are inter-connected. Yes, is also the same DARPA that single handedly funded the development of the Internet (originally called DARPANet). It's also the agency that funded projects to build the driverless cars now being deployed by Google (in fact by the same people including Sebastian and Mike who won the DARPA-sponsored competition). Oh yes, and they have taken on the quest for synthetic blood and the revival of the US manufacturing sector. In short, if you try to eschew technologies that DARPA helped start, you better get your bear skin rug and book of earthworm recipes ready for the comfy torch-lit cave you plan to settle into with the other drooling luddites.

A related, and more profound issue, but one that was apparently too subtle for the simplistic shovel-ware that was this article is the following: as science and technology continues to mature and expand human capacity, what mechanisms can we envision as a society to channel the results away from harmful applications? This can't just be a matter of an edict, or one or a few scientists, or even nations, staying away from certain lines of research. Rather, it will require a global-scale agreement on how certain technologies should, or should not, be exploited. As a rule, however, we have done very poorly at such efforts and any successful approach will have to be very forward-looking, multi-national and subtle and will have to avoid the heavy-handed tactics that have consistently failed in the past.

The McGill Aqua2 robot hard at work
The "death-dealing" McGill Aqua2 robot hard at work on a coral reef
(Click to expand)

By Gregory Dudek at | Read (1) or Leave a comment |    
Re: Good press, bad press

Oivey! And to think that the MRL was like the least evil lab that I've ever seen, and the least evil place I ever "worked" at (one could argue that I've never really "worked" anywhere). The McGill Daily's always been a bastion of innuendo and bias and I'm amazed (amazed!) that they've never been sued.

[ Hey, it's always nice to hear from ya. --GD ]

Posted by: Sandra at January 06,2013 13:38
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