Robots, Autonomy, and "The Perfect Five": David Mindell Offers a Sneak Peek of His Lunch With a Luminary Talk

One unique feature of ScienceWriters2015 will be an expanded, two-day edition of Lunch With a Luminary (known at previous conferences as Lunch With a Scientist). Seven MIT and Broad Institute researchers will talk about their work over box lunches on Sunday, 11 October. And on Monday, 12 October, conference attendees will split up again for lunches with eight MIT researchers, plus a special panel on innovation in Kendall Square. See some logistics notes about the lunch sessions below.

I wanted to offer a small appetizer, so this week I conducted a brief, one-question interview with David Mindell, one of our Monday lunch speakers, about the themes of his hot-off-the-presses book, Our Robots, Ourselves.

Mindell is an engineer, historian, and entrepreneur with joint appointments in MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, in the School of Engineering, and the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. He's interested in the interplay between automation and human oversight, especially in vehicles bound for extreme environments such as space, the high atmosphere, or the deep oceans. In his 2008 book Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight, he chronicled the contest between pilots and programmers for control of the ships that took the first humans to another world in the 1960s. 

His newest book, Our Robots, Ourselves, which comes out 13 October, goes even deeper and brings the story into the present. Mindell draws on extensive interviews and his own experience as an engineer to show that—in contrast to the visions of total autonomy exemplified by Google's self-driving car project—workable control systems almost always entail a complex balance between human and automated input, in which humans are, in one way or another, always at the center.

If you haven't signed up for a Lunch With a Luminary session, or if you want to switch into Mindell's talk or any lunch that has open slots, you can do so at the host desk at the check-in area. As a bonus, the first 15 attendees to arrive at Mindell's lunch will get a free advance copy of Our Robots, Ourselves.

Here's our mini-Q&A:

Wade Roush: It seems that part of your goal with this book is to dispel common misunderstandings about robots, especially the robots that, increasingly, are guiding vehicles in demanding situations like passenger flight and highway traffic. How would you sum up those misunderstandings? How would you suggest that the debate be reframed?

David Mindell: People tend to think “autonomous” or “unmanned” systems think for themselves; when actually their behaviors are designed by people, from some other place and time. There’s this idea that some how robots are naturally evolving toward full autonomy, where humans will have no role.

I’m trying to change our notion of progress — that the ultimate goal of these technologies should be trusted, transparent collaboration between people and machines. If we think about a scale of autonomy, where one represents manual control (like riding a bicycle) and ten represents full autonomy, I think the true challenge is the “perfect five,” where robots are deeply embedded in human environments. 

Check out Mindell's talk on Monday for a much deeper explanation of the "perfect five" and the levels of autonomy that engineers building tomorrow's transportation systems ought to be testing.

A few logistics notes. At the MIT host desk near the conference check-in area, we'll have sheets where you can confirm your Lunch With a Luminary choice, see whether you've been moved off the waitlist for a given lunch, or switch to a different speaker (depending on availability). If you decide not to attend your chosen lunch, please stop at the host desk to cross your name off that list; this will open up spots for others from the waitlist or for new sign-ups.

The Lunch With a Luminary sessions will take place from 12:00 pm to 2:00 pm on 11 and 12 October. At lunch time, please grab a box lunch in the Kresge Lobby and proceed to your selected session. Guides will be posted along the way to help you find your assigned room. The speakers and their assigned locations are listed here for Sunday and here for Monday. They'll also be shown on page 24 of your badge booklet, which you'll receive when you check in. Page 25 shows a map of the MIT Student Center, where many of the lunches will be held. (Mindell's lunch is in Building 4, Room 145.)

Wade Roush

10 Museum Way, Cambridge, MA, 02141, United States

Science and technology journalist based in San Francisco.