PBS Documentaries Predict The Light And Dark Of Technology

Rise of the Robots and The Human Face of Big Data highlight the potential of technology to save and enhance human lives—with a few unnerving warnings.

Back-to-back documentaries on PBS tonight look at how robotics and Big Data are creating a future of life-enhancing possibilities, but at great cost if we’re not careful.


First up is Nova’s Rise of the Robots, which extrapolates the efforts of engineers in the DARPA Robotic Challenge to design rescue robots, into future implications when robots can do a human’s job or determine which lives to save.

That’s followed by the award-winning The Human Face of Big Data, which explores how the explosion of the Internet, data, and connected devices is creating a planetary nervous system (with humans as sensors) and an understanding of ourselves never before possible—but at the risk of losing privacy.

Rise Of The Robots

This documentary uses the DARPA Robotics Challenge—a 2012-2015 competition to design disaster relief robots—to launch a discussion of how increased robotic capability, intelligence, and automation might enhance and threaten humans.

The challenge launched in response to humanitarian needs in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, when DARPA—the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—invited robotic designs that could accomplish human tasks (such as driving a car, walking, drilling, and opening a door) to compete. The teams ultimately vied for a top prize of $2 million.

CHIMPS view of the coursePhoto: Courtesy of DARPA

“The things that a human can do instinctively and easily, you don’t realize how hard something like walking is until you try to reproduce it in a machine,” says Jerry Pratt, team leader for the Institute for Human Machine Cognition, in the film.

Just putting one foot in front of the other requires a half million lines of code. Gyroscopes and accelerometers approximate inner ear balance.

Virginia Tech’s robot ESCHER from Team ValorPhoto: Courtesy of DARPA

While the challenge showed how much further viable machines need to go in mobility, dexterity, and environment assessment, mastering them hinted at future applications, such as elder care, babysitting, and cleaning. But it also heralded potential job losses for unskilled workers.

“I think we will lose at least 20% to 30% of our jobs over the next 20 years and probably more—fast food, cashiers, the first to go will be drivers,” says Geometric Intelligence CEO Gary Marcus in the film. “Forty years from now, there aren’t going to be a lot of jobs.”

The documentary also raises questions of the ethical laws of robots, which might be tasked with determining who lives and who dies, as well as who’s to blame when something goes wrong, and how far to carry robotic autonomy.

Adds IHMC’s Prett: “We need to keep our eyes open to our vulnerability to a technology that we are on the cusp of creating.”

The Human Face Of Big Data

The Human Face of Big Data continues where the best-selling coffee table book of the same name (featuring a Fast Company article by yours truly) and app leave off. For this project, book author Rick Smolan teamed with his filmmaker brother, Sandy, to create a fast-paced tapestry of arresting visuals, graphics, and interviews with pioneering scientists, entrepreneurs, futurists, and experts to illustrate the promises and perils of this technology.

Big Data is the capture, measurement, and analysis of complex data sets too big for traditional processing. The amount of data being generated now is stupefying. According to the documentary, every two days humans generate as much data as was created from the dawn of humanity through 2003, while individuals in major cities are exposed to as much information in a day as our 15th century counterparts were over a lifetime. The last two years have seen more data processing than the last 300.

Photo: Catherine Balet’s “Strangers in the Light,” (Steidl) 2012, from The Human Face of Big Data

In the future, constant personal data from social media, online shopping, searches, and cell phones will be increasingly joined by homes, cars, appliances, and biomedical devices. By 2020, there will be 40 zettabytes of data. Think the number of sand grains on the planet multiplied by 75. That’s 40 with 21 zeros after it.

New tools are enabling us to mine that data for patterns and visualize how complex systems function in ways previously impossible. These new analyses will facilitate more informed decisions in our daily lives and offer possible solutions to seemingly insurmountable societal challenges, such as health, hunger, climate change, terrorism, and disaster relief.

The documentary engages anecdotal examples to illustrate a handful of Big Data applications: how continuous monitoring and voluminous analytics can determine how a baby learns new words, pre-infection biomarkers in neonatal patients, genetic indicators of future disease, smarter ways of applying limited resources in cities, and better pandemic tracking and crisis mapping.

While Big Data can accomplish great good, there’s also a dark side to how that vast amount of data can be used, legally or not.

Photo: Courtesy of Timothy Archibald, 2012, “The Human Face of Big Data”

“There are a lot of people on Facebook who don’t know how much information is really out there about them and don’t care as long as they can put up pictures of their cats,” says Esquire‘s Charles Pierce in the film. “Most people, when they think about privacy, don’t seem to connect their willingness to share their personal information with the world through social media or shopping online . . . with surveillance.”

“I’m really worried about the costs of democracy,” adds MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito. “Nowadays, it’s nearly impossible to be anonymous. My fear is that once governments and companies start to be able to use that date to profile people and filter them out, everyone is going to start worrying about their activities.”


About the author

Susan Karlin, based in Los Angeles, is a regular contributor to Fast Company, where she covers space science, autonomous vehicles, and the future of transportation. Karlin has reported for The New York Times, NPR, Scientific American, and Wired, among other outlets, from such locations as the Arctic and Antarctica, Israel and the West Bank, and Southeast Asia