Home The Robots are Watching Us

The Robots are Watching Us

Have you ever felt like your household appliances are watching your every move and conspiring amongst each other? No? Oh well, I guess that’s just me. It’s exactly what European researchers are hoping to enable though, by building a data sharing service called RoboEarth that automated devices can use to share information between themselves.

To understand why this is useful, imagine a robot arriving at a location that it’s never visited before. If another machine had explored there earlier, the map it had built up would be available on this “robot Internet.” The same system could be used to pass around all sorts of information, from traffic patterns to help robots plan better routes, to the training information about how to best complete tasks.

The practical applications of this are definitely very exciting, but to a mischievous mind like mine, so are some of the unintended possibilities. If cleaning robots share maps of the locations they work in, wouldn’t criminals be interested in banks’ floor plans? How about the routines of driverless armored cars? Training a machine to perform around our own homes will involve revealing a lot of our private patterns of behavior. Are we always out of the house on Sunday mornings?

Even data that is aggregated together can be very revealing. One researcher told me in confidence of a pattern she had noticed in crime data released by a major city, showing that in one area there were never any arrests for drug crimes on a Thursday. She’s kept that under her hat, but that would be very useful intelligence for drug dealers. The more of this sort of information is made semi-publicly available, the more likely it will have unintended consequences like these.

I don’t want to be alarmist about this, it sounds like a great project, and to keep things in perspective the volume of information being gathered on us just from our cell phones dwarfs the planned robotic data-sharing. As the Internet of Things gathers steam though, we are going to have a whole new world of security and privacy challenges to think about. So, keep a careful eye on your Roomba…

Photo by Procsilas Moscas

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