R2D2 and you, too

Brianno Coller
Brianno Coller

For years, humankind has thought of capable, intelligent robots as the stuff of science fiction, from the friendly droids of “Star Wars” to the mechanical overlords of “The Matrix.”

In fact, smart robots are already all around us – with more coming every day.

The ongoing invasion of robots into our everyday lives is the topic of the next STEM Café: “R2D2 and You: How Star Wars Droids are Shaping Robotics and Human Robot Interactions.”

Brianno Coller, a professor in the NIU Department of Mechanical Engineering, and David Gunkel, a professor in the NIU Department of Communication, will lead the free talk and discussion.

The event takes place from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 9, at Two Brothers Roundhouse, 205 N. Broadway in Aurora.

Coller will focus on how machines from smartphones to airplane pilot systems are programmed to “learn” from the data they collect.

“You don’t need to be a computer scientist or engineer to understand the basics of how these algorithms work,” Coller says. “Machine learning techniques are amazingly elegant, so with a little high school math and a willingness to put your mind to work, you can actually learn a lot.”

Gunkel, a specialist in the philosophy of technology, will explore broader questions posed by advances in smart machines.

David Gunkel
David Gunkel

“Machines are everywhere, doing everything,” Gunkel says.

“As robots – not just physical devices like the Google Car or battlefield drones, but also algorithms, software bots and other technologies – come to occupy positions where they are not just tools or instruments but social actors in their own right, we will need to ask ourselves some rather difficult questions,” he adds.

“At what point might a machine be held responsible for the decisions it makes? When will it make sense to say, ‘It’s the computer’s fault?’ At what point might we have to consider extending something like rights to devices that are particularly socially active?”

Gunkel explored these issues in his award-winning 2012 book, “The Machine Question.”

“This will be a fascinating conversation,” says NIU STEM Outreach associate Judith Dymond. “Either side – the technical or the philosophical – would be interesting enough on its own. Having both together will be captivating.”

This event is part of NIU STEM Outreach’s series of monthly STEM Cafés, all of which are free and open to the public. Food and drinks will be available for purchase from Two Brothers Round House.

For more information, call (815) 753-4751 or email jdymond@niu.edu.

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