The head of the DARPA Robotics Challenge isn’t afraid of a robot uprising—he’s afraid of our smartphones

Smartphones: scarier than a robot uprising.
Smartphones: scarier than a robot uprising.
Image: Matt Sayles/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images
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Scientists are working on robots that can leap over objects, run through the forest, and recover from injuries, but we needn’t worry about them eventually dominating or exterminating us. What we should fear are the cellphones we carry in our pockets every day.

That’s according to Gill Pratt, the program manager at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) who ran the agency’s recent robotics challenge. Speaking with Defense One, Pratt rebuffed the notion that killer robots are around the corner:

People have this notion that robots are dangerous because they have legs, so perhaps they can come get us. The danger is not in the legs. It’s in the camera and the microphone. We’re the robot. We carry cell phones around all over the place to the worst places they can be and we trust whoever it is to audit the software to make sure it has no malware in it. There’s a lot of trust there. I’m very worried about those systems. I don’t worry about the robot on the loose doing physical damage. The valuable stuff is the data. That issue is huge and transcends whether it’s a robot, a cellphone, or a laptop. If you solve it for the laptop and phone, you’ll solve it for the robot as well.

Pratt is not the first to suggest that we should be worried about who’s listening in to our cellphone calls, or whether our webcams are really off even when the little indicator light is off. Former government contractor Edward Snowden is currently holed up in Russia because of the systemic surveillance program he exposed. The Atlantic reported last year on how easy it is to hack webcams, and Wired showed that the systems controlling our cars—now basically smartphones on wheels—are just as vulnerable.

Hacking becomes an even more daunting prospect when weapons systems—especially autonomous ones—are considered. ”If the machines are helping our forces do what they’re doing, how do we make sure that no one is watching?” Pratt said. “These are serious questions, but they aren’t specific to the robotics field. They’re specific to IT.”

Still, in the popular imagination, robots hold a special menace, with blockbuster movies like the Terminator series, the Matrix, I, Robot, and Avengers: Age of Ultron imagining a future where connected robots turn on their human creators. Even the tech guru Elon Musk worries about a robot uprising, and he joined a group of researchers—including Stephen Hawking and Steve Wozniak—calling for a ban on killer robots earlier this year.

But for now, the world should be more focused on creating more secure communications systems, Pratt said: ”There are also whole lot of reasons why a ban is impractical right now,” he explained. “To call for one now based on an emotional fear of a far future thing, this is the wrong time to do that.”