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Google wants to improve artificial intelligence to prevent robot screw-ups

Five ways your future robot might go awry.

More and more artificial intelligence will soon enter our lives. And Google would very much like its AI systems to be front and center.

That’s why the company is putting resources into making sure AI systems don’t go off the rails.

Last month, Google researchers teamed with scientists from two universities and OpenAI, the consortium backed by Elon Musk, to investigate potential pitfalls for AI that may arrive in the not-too-distant future.

The paper walks through five different ways a household cleaning robot could encounter safety problems, then details some math to avoid these problems. (Google hasn’t released plans for this kind of robot, but one of its robotics projects — no, not the frightening humanoid one — fits the bill.)

Here are the five issues that Google flags:

  • Whoops: If you train a robot to clean your house as quickly as possible, how do you ensure that it doesn’t knock over the lamp?
  • “Reward hacking”: What if the robots cheat? Google wonders aloud if a robot could, say, sweep a mess under a rug or disable its vision (nothing to see here!).
  • Reasonable human feedback: Can robots figure out how to improvise on the job — like toss a candy wrapper, but not a cellphone — without constant human oversight?
  • Physical safety: We probably don’t want our robots shoving wet mops in sockets.
  • Different environments: Once the robot learns to clean a room in a house, can the same robot clean an office?

It’s important research — before these types of robots arrive en masse, they will surely need to pass certain safety requirements. And Google needs to prove that AI is a force for good. The Google paper also nods to other important research topics like ensuring that AI doesn’t fall into “malicious” hands or “attack or harm people.”

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