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New York Times reporter John Markoff is interviewed by G. Pascal Zachary at TechFestNW in Portland on Friday.

Last month, Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak and hundreds of others wrote a letter that detailed their concerns for autonomous weapons controlled by robots. That begged the question: Should everyday consumers be worried about how robots may one day turn against us in our own homes, cars, and neighborhoods?

New York Times reporter and science author John Markoff eased those concerns while speaking in Portland at TechFestNW, saying that humans have the power to dictate how robots act.

“My argument is that we have a choice,” he said. “We can design these machines as slaves, we can design them as partners, or they can become our masters. That’s a human decision.”


Markoff cited Alan Kay, a computer scientist he spoke with while researching for his latest book, Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots.

“He said what I thought was the most profound thing about our relationship with machines: Even though there’s a sense that they have a life of their own, they are really just tools designed by humans and imbued with code that give them properties,” said Markoff, who joined the Times in 1993 and has covered technology for more than three decades.

Markoff, who will speak at the GeekWire Summit in October, noted that there will be different categories of robots and that there needs to be different regulations for “robot weapons as opposed to robots that are supposed to be machines of loving grace and take care of us.”

Markoff said he has a broad definition of robots that includes machines that are embodied — those that have arms, self-driving cars, etc. — and machines that are disembodied such as digital voice assistants like Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana. He noted that until now, robots have largely transformed the industrial and machine side of things, but now they are showing cognitive qualities.

Alibab's robot man presenter at CES 2015
Alibaba’s robot man presenter at CES 2015.

“For the first time, we have machines that are not intelligent in the sense that humans are, but we treat them as if they are intelligent,” he explained. “This is more sociological in a sense than it is technological. We as a species have a propensity to anthropomorphize almost anything we interact with, whether it’s our dog or our robot. And as robots increasingly appear to be intelligent, we interact with them as if they are intelligent.”

But Markoff did add that “I don’t believe machines are going to become self-aware in the sense that humans are self-aware in our lifetime.”

Markoff also touched on the impact robots will have on manufacturing — more simply, whether or not we’ll see an increase in machines replacing jobs traditionally done by humans. He said he initially was worried about this, but in the past two years his perspective has changed.

Markoff said he spoke with economist Daniel Kahneman, who told him that “robots will show up in China just in time.”

“His point was that if you look at China, it’s a rapidly-aging society, as is Japan, Korea, and Europe,” Markoff said.

As far as the rapid rise of virtual digital assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Echo, Markoff said we will soon not be able to separate machine interaction from human interaction.

“The social scientist and science fiction writer in me goes, ‘Oh my God, this is going to change the world,'” he said. “More of our interactions will be with machines perhaps than with humans? What kind of world will that be?”

Editor’s note: New York Times technology reporter John Markoff will speak at the GeekWire Summit on Oct. 1-2 — buy your tickets here.

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