Challenge 3

Challenge 2020: Build the World’s most Trustful and Social Robot TrusTee©

Robotization, digitalization and artificial intelligence (AI) are developing at a fast pace and penetrating and influencing all aspects of life and society. Robots are leaving the cage, in which industrial robots have been functioning for quite some time already. They are becoming ‘cobots’, i.e. collaborative robots. Robots do not always look like us, humans. Next to humanoid robots, various forms and appearances of the new technology exist, including softbots, drones, smart software, chatbots and an unlimited number of applications of algorithms. It is going to be the first time in history that humans will intensively interact and live together with non-human actors that can operate autonomously, are very powerful and intelligent and that can actually learn (machine learning, deep learning) and improve themselves. The point of singularity, where we as humans are being outsmarted by robots and AI, may not be so far away. As Elon Musk has stated: “Robots can do everything better than we can.”

At the same time, however, this technology may turn out to be a devil in many disguises, threatening privacy and other human rights, and contributing to new ‘techno’ forms of disciplining, control and even repression. It may drive people out of jobs (as already happening) and, in general, lead to alienation and dehumanization. We might become strongly dependent on robots and AI. The original Czech meaning of the word ‘robot’ is equal to ‘slave’, but, ironically, in a worst-case scenario, humankind might end up being enslaved to the robots.

The crucial issue and solution is called ‘value alignment’. If we are able to design and program robots and AI in such a way that they align in every operation and effect with what we consider human values – both in manners, process and outcome – we have much less to worry about and we will experience great benefits. The question here of course is: Do we know and agree what those values are, and are we capable of pursuing ‘human values by design’? In addition, to make things even more complicated, it is not impossible that in the end robots and AI might be better in putting human values to practice than we ourselves actually able and willing to. Therefore, we also need to give technology sufficient room and leeway to act. After all, at times we have made quite a mess of society and our planet. We might actually benefit from a new form of co-creation between humankind and technology.

The TrusTee project at Tilburg University is about identifying core human values and designing and aligning robots and AI in such a way that they conform to and comply with these values and their implications. This mammoth task requires a strong role and effort from the social sciences and humanities. Building a robot in a technical sense is one thing, but building a social robot that can be trusted and that we can live and work with, is another thing. We cannot just leave this endeavor to technology developers and technology universities.

We should act now, as we as humans are bound by Amara's law: We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run. We act according to the precautionary principle, which, according to the European Parliament Think Tank, enables decision-makers to adopt precautionary measures when scientific evidence about an environmental or human health hazard is uncertain and the stakes are high. The current state and performances of robots and AI are not a measure of their potential and impact.

This is why Tilburg University aims at developing the most trustful and social robot in the world.

We call this robot ‘TrusTee’, which stands for ‘Tilburg University social and trustful robot’. By ‘robot’, we do not merely mean a physical robot, but also AI. Evidently, to date TrusTee is an image, an imaginary, a vision and an approach – not one single super robot or AI application under construction.

Evidently, the name TrusTee is also chosen, because we need future and intelligent technology to be our trustee. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a trustee as “a natural or legal person to whom property is legally committed to be administered for the benefit of a beneficiary (such as a person or a charitable organization).” We want to be able to entrust Trustee with the future of our societies and planet.

We also refer to Kranzberg’s Fourth Law: Technology might be a prime element in many public issues, but nontechnical factors dominate in technology-policy decisions and implementation and various complex sociocultural factors, especially human elements, are at play, even in what might appear ‘purely technical’ decisions. Within the TrusTee project, we mobilize and involve all social sciences and humanities (SSH), economics, law, public administration, communication sciences, data science, psychology, sociology, philosophy and theology. Of course, we will closely work together, as we do already, with partners from the technology side, such as Eindhoven University of Technology, technology institutes and tech companies. Technological innovation and social innovation need to go hand in hand.

The TrusTee project aptly fits the ambitions and aims of the Tilburg University Program, where we work to advance society from the perspective of ‘Science with a Soul’. The project is neatly positioned between our three impact themes: Empowering the Resilient Society, Enhancing Health and Wellbeing and Data science for the Social Good.