Thursday, May 27, 2021

Ethics is the new Quality

This morning I took part in the first panel at the BSI conference The Digital World: Artificial Intelligence.  The subject of the panel was AI Governance and Ethics. My co-panelist was Emma Carmel, and we were expertly chaired by Katherine Holden.

Emma and I each gave short opening presentations prior to the Q&A. The title of my talk was Why is Ethical Governance in AI so hard? Something I've thought about alot in recent months.

Here are the slides exploring that question.

 

And here is what I said.

Early in 2018 I wrote a short blog post with the title Ethical Governance: what is it and who's doing it? Good ethical governance is important because in order for people to have confidence in their AI they need to know that it has been developed responsibly. I concluded my piece by asking for examples of good ethical governance. I had several replies, but none were nominating AI companies.

So. why is it that 3 years on we see some of the largest AI companies on the planet shooting themselves in the foot, ethically speaking? I’m not at all sure I can offer an answer but, in the next few minutes, I would like to explore the question: why is ethical governance in AI so hard? 

But from a new perspective. 

Slide 2

In the early 1970s I spent a few months labouring in a machine shop. The shop was chaotic and disorganised. It stank of machine oil and cigarette smoke, and the air was heavy with the coolant spray used to keep the lathe bits cool. It was dirty and dangerous, with piles of metal swarf cluttering the walkways. There seemed to be a minor injury every day.

Skip forward 40 years and machine shops look very different. 

Slide 3

So what happened? Those of you old enough will recall that while British design was world class – think of the British Leyland Mini, or the Jaguar XJ6 – our manufacturing fell far short. "By the mid 1970s British cars were shunned in Europe because of bad workmanship, unreliability, poor delivery dates and difficulties with spares. Japanese car manufacturers had been selling cars here since the mid 60s but it was in the 1970s that they began to make real headway. Japanese cars lacked the style and heritage of the average British car. What they did have was superb build quality and reliability" [1].

What happened was Total Quality Management. The order and cleanliness of modern machine shops like this one is a strong reflection of TQM practices. 

Slide 4

In the late 1970s manufacturing companies in the UK learned - many the hard way - that ‘quality’ is not something that can be introduced by appointing a quality inspector. Quality is not something that can be hired in.

This word cloud reflects the influence from Japan. The words Japan, Japanese and Kaizen – which roughly translates as continuous improvement – appear here. In TQM everyone shares the responsibility for quality. People at all levels of an organization participate in kaizen, from the CEO to assembly line workers and janitorial staff. Importantly suggestions from anyone, no matter who, are valued and taken equally seriously.

Slide 5

In 2018 my colleague Marina Jirotka and I published a paper on ethical governance in robotics and AI. In that paper we proposed 5 pillars of good ethical governance. The top four are:

  • have an ethical code of conduct, 
  • train everyone on ethics and responsible innovation,
  • practice responsible innovation, and
  • publish transparency reports.

The 5th pillar underpins these four and is perhaps the hardest: really believe in ethics.

Now a couple of months ago I looked again at these 5 pillars and realised that they parallel good practice in Total Quality Management: something I became very familiar with when I founded and ran a company in the mid 1980s [2].

Slide 6 

So, if we replace ethics with quality management, we see a set of key processes which exactly parallel our 5 pillars of good ethical governance, including the underpinning pillar: believe in total quality management.

I believe that good ethical governance needs the kind of corporate paradigm shift that was forced on UK manufacturing industry in the 1970s.

Slide 7

In a nutshell I think ethics is the new quality

Yes, setting up an ethics board or appointing an AI ethics officer can help, but on their own these are not enough. Like Quality, everyone needs to understand and contribute to ethics. Those contributions should be encouraged, valued and acted upon. Nobody should be fired for calling out unethical practices.

Until corporate AI understands this we will, I think, struggle to find companies that practice good ethical governance [3]. 

Quality cannot be ‘inspected in’, and nor can ethics.

Thank you.


Notes.

[1]    I'm quoting here from the excellent history of British Leyland by Ian Nicholls

[2]    My company did a huge amount of work for Motorola and - as a subcontractor - we became certified software suppliers within their six sigma quality management programme.

[3]    It was competitive pressure that forced manufacturing companies in the 1970s to up their game by embracing TQM. Depressingly the biggest AI companies face no such competitive pressures, which is why regulation is both necessary and inevitable.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Grim Reality of Jobs in Robotics and AI

The reality is that AI is in fact generating a large number of jobs already. That is the good news. The bad news is that they are mostly - to put it bluntly - crap jobs. 

There are several categories of such jobs. 

At the benign end of the spectrum is the work of annotating images, i.e. looking at images and identifying features then labelling them. This is AI tagging. This work is simple and incredibly dull but important because it generates training data sets for machine learning systems. Those systems could be AIs for autonomous vehicles and the images are identifying bicycles, traffic lights etc. The jobs are low-skill low-pay and a huge international industry has grown up to allow the high tech companies to outsource this work to what have been called white collar sweatshops in China or developing countries. 

A more skilled version of this kind of job are translators who are required to ‘assist’ natural language translation systems who get stuck on a particular phrase or word.

And there is another category of such jobs that are positively dangerous: content moderators. These are again outsourced by companies like Facebook, to contractors who employ people to filter abusive, violent or illegal content. This can mean watching video clips and making a decision on whether the clip is acceptable or not (and apparently the rules are complex), over and over again, all day. Not surprisingly content moderators suffer terrible psychological trauma, and often leave the job burned out after a year or two. Publicly Facebook tells us this is important work, yet content moderators are paid a fraction of what staffers working on the company campus earn. So not that important.

But jobs created by AI and automation can also be physically dangerous. The problem with real robots, in warehouses for instance, is that like AIs they are not yet good enough to do everything in the (for the sake of argument) Amazon warehouse. So humans have to do the parts of the workflow that robots cannot yet do and - as we know from press reports - these humans are required to work super fast and behave, in fact, as if they are robots. And perhaps the most dehumanizing part of the job for such workers is that, like the content moderators (and for that matter Uber drivers or Deliveroo riders), their workflows are managed by algorithms, not humans.

We roboticists used to justifiably claim that robots would do jobs that are too dull, dirty and dangerous for humans. It is now clear that working as human assistants to robots and AIs in the 21st century is dull, and both physically and/or psychologically dangerous. One of the foundational promises of robotics has been broken. This makes me sad, and very angry.

The text above is a lightly edited version of my response to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) request for comments on a draft horizon scanning article. The final piece How technology is accelerating changes in the way we work was published a few weeks ago.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Energy Cost of Online Living in Lockdown

Readers of his blog will know that one of the many things ethical I worry about is the energy cost of AI. As part of the work I'm doing with Claudia Pagliari and her National Expert Group on Digital Ethics for Scotland I've been looking also into the energy costs of what is - for many of us - everyday digital life in lockdown. I don't yet have a complete set of results but what I have found so far is surprising - and not in a good way.

So far I've looked into the energy costs of (i) uploading to the cloud, (ii) streaming video (i.e. from iPlayer or Netflix), and (iii) video conferencing.

(i) Uploading to the cloud. This 2017 article in the Stanford Magazine explains that when you save a 1 Gbyte file – that’s about 1 hour of video - to your laptop’s disk drive the energy cost is 0.000005 kWh, or 5 milliWatt hours. Save the same file to the Cloud and the energy cost is between 3 and 7 kWh. For comparison your electric kettle burns about 3 kWh. This mean that the energy cost of saving to the cloud is about a million times higher than to your local disk drive. 

The huge difference makes sense when you consider that there is a very complex international network of switches, routers and exchange hubs, plus countless amplifiers maintaining signal strength over long distance transmission lines. All of this consumes energy. Then add a slice of the energy costs of the server farm.

(ii) Streaming video. This article in The Times from May 2019 makes the claim that streaming a 2 hour HD movie from Netflix incurs the same energy cost as boiling 10 kettles (based on the sustainable computing research of Mike Hazas). To estimate  how much energy that equates to we need to guess how full the kettle is. A half full 3kWh kettle will take about 2 minutes to boil, and consume therefore 100 Watts. Do that 10 times and you've burned 1kW. A DVD player typically consumes 8 Watts, so streaming costs 125 times more energy.

Again this makes sense against uploading to the cloud, except that here you are downloading from Netflix servers. A 2 hour HD movie is alot of data, around 10GBytes, so 10 times more than the case for (i) above.

(iii) Video conferencing. This post on David Mytton's excellent blog explores the energy cost of Zoom meetings in some detail. David estimates that a 1 hour video zoom call with 6 participants generates between 5 and 15GB of data and that the data transfer consumes between 0.07 – 0.22kWh of electricity. Using our benchmark of kettles boiled this is pretty modest - at most less than one tenth of the energy cost. 

However this estimate makes 2 assumptions: first that you are connected via cable or fixed line - which here in the UK costs 0.015kWh per GByte. A mobile connection costs about seven times that at 0.1kWh/GB. And second, this estimate measures only the energy costs of data transmission and fails to take account of the energy costs of Zoom's data centres, which - if (i) and (ii) here are anything to go by, could be significant, especially since there aren't any in the UK and the default servers are in the US.

As this article on the Zoom blog explains, Zoom calls are not peer to peer. The video from each participant is streamed first to a zoom server then broadcast to every other person on the call. As David Mytton says Zoom don't release information on the overall energy costs of calls. I strongly suspect that if server energy costs were factored in they would be in line with cases (i) and (ii) above. Even so, I feel sure that David Mytton's overall conclusion remains true: that the energy cost of Zoom meetings is significantly lower than all but local or regional travel.

 

I would like to see networking services like cloud storage, video on demand and video conferencing publish a meaningful energy cost. When we buy packaged food from the supermarket we expect to read the calorific energy value of each item, broken down into fat, salt and so on.  It would be great if every online transaction, from sending an email, to watching a movie revealed its energy/carbon cost. Not just for energy geeks like me, but to remind all of us that the Digital Economy is *very* energy hungry.


I would welcome any additional data which either adds to the above (especially the energy costs for smaller online transactions like tweets, emails or card payments), or shows that the estimates above are wrong. 

Related blog posts:

On Sustainable Robotics
Energy and Exploitation: AIs dirty secrets
What's wrong with Consumer Electronics? 

 


Monday, March 22, 2021

On Sustainable Robotics

The climate emergency brooks no compromise: every human activity or artefact is either part of the solution or it is part of the problem. 

I've worried about the sustainability of consumer electronics for some time, and, more recently, the shocking energy costs of big AI. But the climate emergency has also caused me to think hard about the sustainability of robots. In recent papers we have defined responsible robotics as

... the application of Responsible Innovation in the design, manufacture, operation, repair and end-of-life recycling of robots, that seeks the most benefit to society and the least harm to the environment.

I will wager that few robotics manufacturers - even the most responsible - pay much attention to repairability and environmental impact. And, I'm ashamed to say, very little robotics research is focused on the development of sustainable robots. A search on google scholar throws up just a handful of great papers detailing work on upcycled and sustainable robots (2018), sustainable robotics for smart cities (2018), and sustainable soft robots (2020).

I was then delighted when, a few weeks ago, my friend and colleague Michael Fisher, drafted a proposal for a new standard on Sustainable Robotics. The proposal received strong support from the BSI robotics committee. Here is the formal notice requesting comments on Michael's proposal: BS XXXX Guide to the Sustainable Design and Application of Robotic Systems. Anyone can comment (although you do need to register first). The deadline is 1 April 2021. 

So what would make a robot sustainable? In my view it would have to be:

  1. Made from sustainable materials. This means the robot should, as far as possible, use recycled materials (plastics or metals), or biodegradable materials like wood. Any new materials should be ethically sourced. 
  2. Low energy. The robot should be designed to use as little energy as possible. It should have energy saving modes. If an outdoor robot then it should use solar cells and/or hydrogen cells when they become small enough for mobile robots. Battery powered robots should always be rechargeable. 
  3. Repairable. The robot would be designed for ease of repair, using modular, replaceable parts as much as possible - especially the battery. Additionally the manufacturers should provide a repair manual so that local workshops could fix most faults. 
  4. Recyclable. Robots will eventually come to the end of their useful life, and if they cannot be repaired or recycled we risk them being dumped in landfill. To reduce this risk the robot should be designed to make it easy to re-use parts, such as electronics and motors, and re-cycle batteries, metals and plastics.

These are, for me, the four fundamental requirements, but there are others. The BSI proposal adds the environmental effects of deployment (it is unlikely we would consider a sustainable robot designed to spray pesticides as truly sustainable), or of failure in the field. Also the environmental effect of maintenance; cleaning materials, for instance. The proposal also looks toward sustainable, upcyclable robots as part of a circular economy.

This is Ecobot III, developed some years ago by colleagues in the Bristol Robotics Lab's Bio-energy group. The robot runs on electricity extracted from biomass by 48 microbial fuel cells (the two concentric brick coloured rings). The robot is 90% 3D printed, and the plastic is recyclable.

 

 

 

 

 

I would love to see, in the near term, not only a new standard on Sustainable Robotics as a guide (and spur) for manufacturers, but the emergence of Sustainable Robotics as a thriving new sub-discipline in robotics.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Back to Robot Coding part 3: testing the EBB

In part 2 a few weeks ago I outlined a Python implementation of the ethical black box. I described the key data structure - a dictionary which serves as both specification for the type of robot, and the data structure used to deliver live data to the EBB. I also mentioned the other key robot specific code: 

# Get data from the robot and store it in data structure spec
def getRobotData(spec):

Having reached this point I needed a robot - and a way of communicating with it - so that I could both write getRobotData(spec) and test the EBB. But how to do this? I'm working from home during lockdown, and my e-puck robots are all in the lab. Then I remembered that the excellent robot simulator V-REP (now called CoppeliaSim) has a pretty good e-puck model and some nice demo scenes. V-REP also offers multiple ways of communicating between simulated robots and external programs (see here). One of them - TCP/IP sockets - appeals to me as I've written sockets code many times, for both real-world and research applications.  Then a stroke of luck: I found that a team at Ensta-Bretagne had written a simple demo which shows how to connect a Python program to a robot in V-REP, using sockets. So, first I got that demo running and figured out how it works, then used the same approach for a simulated e-puck and the EBB. Here is a video capture of the working demo.


So, what's going on in the demo? The visible simulation views in the V-REP window show an e-puck robot following a black line which is blocked by both a potted plant and an obstacle constructed from 3 cylinders. The robot has two behaviours: line following and wall following. The EBB requests data from the e-puck robot once per second, and you can see those data in the Python shell window. Reading from left to right you will see first the EBB date and time stamp, then robot time botT, then the 3 line following sensors lfSe, followed by the 8 infra red proximity sensors irSe. The final two fields show the joint (i.e. wheel) angles jntA, in degrees, then the motor commands jntD. By watching these values as the robot follows its line and negotiates the two obstacles you can see how the line and infra red sensor values change, resulting in updated motor commands.

Here is the code - which is custom written both for this robot and the means of communicating with it - for requesting data from the robot.

# Get data from the robot and store it in spec[]
# while returning one of the following result codes
ROBOT_DATA_OK = 0
CANNOT_CONNECT = 1
SOCKET_ERROR = 2
BAD_DATA = 3

def getRobotData(spec):

    # This function connects, via TCP/IP to an ePuck robot in V-REP

    # create a TCP/IP socket and connect it to the simulated robot
    sock = socket.socket(socket.AF_INET, socket.SOCK_STREAM)
    try:
        sock.connect(server_address_port)
    except:
        return CANNOT_CONNECT

    sock.settimeout(0.1) # set connection timeout
    
    # pack a dummy packet that will provoke data in response
    #   this is, in effect, a 'ping' to ask for a data record
    strSend = struct.pack('fff',1.0,1.0,1.0)
    sock.sendall(strSend) # and send it to V-REP

    # wait for data back from V-REP
    #   expect a packet with 1 time, 2 joints, 2 motors,   
    #   3 line sensors and 8 irSensors. All floats because V-REP
    #   total packet size = 16 x 4 = 64 bytes
    data = b''
    nch_rx = 64 # expect this many bytes from  V-REP 
    try:
        while len(data) < nch_rx:
            data += sock.recv(nch_rx)
    except:
        sock.close()
        return SOCKET_ERROR

    # unpack the received data
    if len(data) == nch_rx:
        # V-REP packs and unpacks in floats only so...
        vrx = struct.unpack('ffffffffffffffff',data)

        # now move data from vrx[] into spec[], while rounding floats
        spec["botTime"] = [ round(vrx[0],2) ] 
        spec["jntDemands"] = [ round(vrx[1],2), round(vrx[2],2) ]
        spec["jntAngles"] = [ round(vrx[3]*180.0/math.pi,2)
                              round(vrx[4]*180.0/math.pi,2) ]
        spec["lfSensors"] = [ round(vrx[5],2), 
                              round(vrx[6],2), round(vrx[7],2) ]
        for i in range(8):
            spec["irSensors"][i] = round(vrx[8+i],3)       
        result = ROBOT_DATA_OK
    else:       
        result = BAD_DATA

    sock.close()
    return result

The structure of this function is very simple: first create a socket then open it, then make a dummy packet and send it to V-REP to request EBB data from the robot. Then, when a data packet arrives, unpack it into spec, then close the socket before returning. The most complex part of the code is data wrangling.

Would a real EBB collect data in this way? Well if the EBB is embedded in the robot then probably not. Communication between the robot controller and the EBB might be via ROS messages, or even more directly, by - for instance - allowing the EBB code to access a shared memory space which contains the robot's sensor inputs, command outputs and decisions. But an external EBB, either running on a local server or in the cloud, would most likely use TCP/IP to communicate with the robot, so getRobotData() would look very much like the example here. 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Back to Robot Coding part 2: the ethical black box

In the last few days I started some serious coding. The first for 20 years, in fact, when I built the software for the BRL LinuxBots. (The coding I did six months ago doesn't really count as I was only writing or modifying small fragments of Python).

My coding project is to start building an ethical black box (EBB), or to be more accurate, a module that will allow a software EBB to be incorporated into a robot. Conceptually the EBB is very simple, it is a data logger - the robot equivalent of an aircraft Flight Data Recorder, or an automotive Event Data Recorder. Nearly five years ago I made the case, with Marina Jirotka, that all robots (and AIs) should be fitted with an EBB as standard. Our argument is very simple: without an EBB, it will be more or less impossible to investigate robot accidents, or near-misses, and in a recent paper on Robot Accident Investigation we argue that with the increasing use of social robots accidents are inevitable and will need to be investigated. 

Developing and demonstrating the EBB is a foundational part of our 5-year EPSRC funded project RoboTIPS, so it's great to be doing some hands-on practical research. Something I've not done for awhile.

Here is a block diagram showing the EBB and its relationship with a robot controller.



























As shown here the data flows from the robot controller to the EBB are strictly one way. The EBB cannot and must not interfere with the operation of the robot. Coding an EBB for a particular robot would be straightforward, but I have set a tougher goal: a generic EBB module (i.e. library of functions) that would - with some inevitable customisation - apply to any robot. And I set myself the additional challenge of coding in Python, making use of skills learned from the excellent online Codecademy Python 2 course.

There are two elements of the EBB that must be customised for a particular robot. The first is the data structure used to fetch and save the sensor, actuator and decision data in the diagram above. Here is an example from my first stab at an EBB framework, using the Python dictionary structure:

# This dictionary structure serves as both 
# 1 specification of the type of robot, and each data field that
#   will be logged for this robot, &
# 2 the data structure we use to deliver live data to the EBB

# for this model let us create a minimal spec for an ePuck robot
epuckSpec = {
    # the first field *always* identifies the type of robot plus            # version and serial nos
    "robot" : ["ePuck", "v1", "SN123456"],
    # the remaining fields are data we will log, 
    # starting with the motors
    # ..of which the ePuck has just 2: left and right
    "motors" : [0,0],
    # then 8 infra red sensors
    "irSensors" : [0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0],
    # ..note the ePuck has more sensors: accelerometer, camera etc, 
    # but this will do for now
    # ePuck battery level
    "batteryLevel" : [0],
    # then 1 decision code - i.e. what the robot is doing now
    # what these codes mean will be specific to both the robot 
    # and the application
    "decisionCode" : [0]
    }

Whether a dictionary is the best way of doing this I'm not 100% sure, being new to Python (any thoughts from experienced Pythonistas welcome).

The idea is that all robot EBBs will need to define a data structure like this. All must contain the first field "robot", which names the robot's type, its version number and serial number. Then the following fields must use keywords from a standard menu, as needed. As shown in this example each keyword is followed by a list of placeholder values - in which the number of values in the list reflects the specification of the actual robot. The ePuck robot, for instance, has 2 motors and 8 infra-red sensors. 

The final field in the data structure is "decisionCode". The values stored in this field would be both robot and applications specific; for the ePuck robot these might be 1 = 'stop', 2 = 'turn left', 3 = 'turn right' and so on. We could add another value for a parameter, so the robot might decide for instance to turn left 40 degrees, so "decisionCode" : [2,40]. We could also add a 'reason' field, which would save the high-level reason for the decision, as in "decisionCode" : [2,40,"avoid obstacle right"] noting that the decision field could be a string as shown here, or a numeric code.

As I hope I have shown here the design of this data structure and its fields is at the heart of the EBB.

The second element of the EBB library that must be written for the particular robot and application, is the function which fetches data from the robot

# Get data from the robot and store it in data structure spec
def getRobotData(spec):
    
How this function is implemented will vary hugely between robots and robot applications. For our Linux enhanced ePucks with WiFi connections this is likely to be via a TCP/IP client-server, with the server running on the robot, sending data following a request from the client  getRobotData(ePuckspec) For simpler setups in which the EBB module is folded into the robot controller then accessing the required data within getRobotData() should be very straightforward.

The generic part of the EBB module will define the class EBB, with methods for both initialising the EBB and saving a new data record to the EBB. I will cover that in another blog post.

Before closing let me add that it is our intention to publish the specification of the EBB, together with the model EBB code, once it had been fully tested, as open source.

Any comments or feedback would be much appreciated.