04 September, 2015
The Future Made Me: Peter Levich, a member of the working group on the ethics of technology and Community Manager at Skolkovo’s Robotics Center

#OI2015 is continuing its series of interviews with successful young entrepreneurs, The Future Made Me!

Every week, in the #OI2015 group on VK, we are holding an open online interview with experts from different innovative sectors. Last time we discussed biotechnology. For our second interview, we invited Peter Levich, a member of the working group on the ethics of technology and Community Manager at Skolkovo’s Robotics Center.

Both organizers and members of the #OI2015 community put their questions forward, so the conversation was wide-ranging, covering everything from what ethics of technology really means to how robots can be built and even smashed up for the good of society.

OI: Hi, Peter. Thank you for joining us here today. Could you tell us how you got into robotics? Was it something you studied or were interested in? Or was it just one of those strange turns of events?

Peter Levich: Robotics is something I fell into gradually. While I was a student, I did an internship at Skolkovo’s IT Cluster. When I graduated, I got a job at Autodesk where I also worked on developing educational robotics, and now here I am at Skolkovo Robotics Center.

The reasons are much more interesting. I had been into science fiction since I was a child, and somewhere along the way I realized that I wouldn’t be able to work on anything that wasn’t connected to the future. It didn’t matter what it was, robotics, biotechnology, genetics, etc. It turned out to be robotics. I wanted to change the world, however grand that may sound. There is something romantic about working with the future.

OI: Life is nothing without a bit of romance! As I understand it, the second important part of your life is the ethics of technology. When I think about this issue, it is either the Skynet futurologists or Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics that come to mind. Could you tell us what it is all about?

Peter Levich: Broadly speaking, it’s about the interaction between technology and society. It’s about how society is changed by technology. And yes, the first thing that comes to mind when we think about the link between technology and society is the conflict between humans and the machines they have created (particularly robots). In the end, it’s the very contradiction assumed in both the story of Skynet and Asimov’s three laws of robotics, although these are in many ways a good philosophy for humans too. (There’s a good article about them on Wikipedia so it’s worth reading about them there – while you still can.) But this is at the level of philosophy and futurology.

If the question is about defining what “ethics of technology” really means and how we approach the issue, the answer is that it is the search for non-technological barriers to the development of technology. Non-technological in the sense of barriers which result precisely from interaction with society. We can identify three types of barriers:

1. Society is not ready for the technology or is afraid of it. For example: Genetically modified organisms.
2. Technology is hampered directly or indirectly by statutory bans. For example: drones and driverless cars.
3. At a certain stage, technology really can be a danger to society. I don’t want to use the well-worn example of Skynet, or humanity being conquered by robots, although many experts, such as Hawking and Musk have written whole cautionary articles devoted to this subject. I’d rather give the example of the genetic modification of children (like in the sci-fi thriller Gattaca). Without getting too scientific, the danger here lies in reducing the genetic diversity of the population, and the possibility of epidemics of genetic disease.

The last thing we want to do is ban technology, and this is not what it’s about. Rather, we need a dialog between the scientific community and the state, which is the regulator in this field.

It is also worth noting, for anyone who is interested and would like to read more about it, that in the West (primarily in the US) this is an area of public policy called science policy – the interaction between science and the state. This is a whole subject area. PhDs have been written on it. In Russia, unfortunately, it is not yet so well developed.

OI: Peter, as technology increasingly becomes a part of our lives I am sure that this field will become more important in Russia too. It is true that there are many things public policy lacks, in the same way as (until recently) there were insufficient resources for proper dialog… at least between the IT sector and the state. It’s great that this is changing – not always without its own problems, of course, but that’s inevitable.

With that in mind, can we return to the subject of Skolkovo? To the general public, Skolkovo and the concept of innovation are practically synonymous in Russia. Could you tell us what the Robotics Cluster is currently working on?

Peter Levich: Its full name is the Skolkovo Robotics Center. The center’s objective is to put together a sustainable self-replicating community of builders of smart robotics and autonomous means of transport. The work of the Robotics Center focuses around the infrastructure created at Skolkovo – hackspace and co-working space, team-working centers and acceleration programs – and is Skolkovo’s first interdisciplinary center.

We already have over 35 companies carrying out commercial projects in the fields of industrial, service, medical, educational and personal robotics, as well as in computer vision, artificial intelligence and speech interfaces.

We hold conferences, hackathons (for developers and on the industrial design of robots) and also give lectures at events held by other organizations. We present our developments at Russian and international exhibitions.

OI: But of course, none of this activity could exist without the community?
Regarding working with communities, or community management, this field is also rather innovative in Russia; hardly anything is written about it and there are only a few hundred specialists in the entire former USSR. At the same time, we have the most diverse area of responsibility. What we have in common is probably the approach. And it is the approach that I wanted to ask you about. Could you tell us a bit more about what the Robotics Center Community Manager actually does?

Peter Levich: Generally, it’s a mixture of PR, social media marketing, working directly with the community and event management. It’s also worth noting that the Skolkovo Robotics Center is not very big staff-wise, and therefore there is not always a clear distinction between roles. Sometimes you have to do a bit of everything.

Our community (like our target clients) comprises start-ups in the robotics sector, staff at start-ups in the robotics sector, staff at larger robotics companies, staff working in companies in associated industries, engineering students, science students, other students, members of government, members of development institutes, venture capital investors, business angels and the academic community.

There’s a reason I’ve listed these in such detail: it might seem that many of these groups could be combined into larger groups, but working with the community requires a clear understanding of the subgroups and keeping them all as separate as possible. After all, each group is interested in its own content, its own events, and its own “funny cat pictures”, basically. There is often nothing wrong with working directly and individually with the community at events.

As for the technical side of things, I would say that my main tool (apart from the obvious mail client and Internet browser) is Excel. For example, if you configure it right you can use it to track community members by event. We take a specific column – we use the email address – as the key to the database and we see how many people came to an event and then how many of these came to the next one on the same topic, and so on. Obviously, this will be a decreasing trend, but depending on how quickly it decreases, we can see if we are targeting an event appropriately for the audience and if they like our content. That’s just a little lifehack from my work.

OI: Excel really is the most commonly used tool in our line of work. I completely agree. Mind you, I’m planning to switch to the Russian version, MoyOfis, soon, when it becomes widely available.

Back to the “funny cat pictures.” Humor is one of those tools that works well in theory (communications) and in practice.

You must have encountered many funny things in your work. Could you tell us about any one incident in particular?

Peter Levich: Funny stories from my work… Yes, I have some. Well, there’s one I definitely remember.

One of the first events I held at Skolkovo was Robonight. This is like the movie nights popular among young people right now, but one of the movies (they usually show three at these things) was replaced by themed entertainment. It was held at the Central Telegraph. There were about 800 people, a disco, sci-fi movies, an interactive robot display, a kinect zone, all that kind of stuff.

In addition to all this, we ordered an enormous light-up robot for the occasion. It was about six meters tall and made out of cardboard – or so we thought. It turned out that apart from cardboard, it contained a six-meter long wooden carcass as thick as a man’s leg and screwed together so tightly that they had probably been planning to cover it in armor plating, rather than cardboard.

Everything seemed to be going smoothly. It was almost morning when I realized that to clear the area (it wasn’t ours and there was another event the next day) we’d need to dismantle the robot somehow. It didn’t look like we could take it out through the doors because of its size and weight. The only thing we could do was to take it out bit by bit, but that would take hours.

We found a neat solution, and the whole thing turned out to be even cooler than we’d imagined. When the final movie ended I went up on stage and invited anyone who wanted to stay and take out all the anger they had built up against robots after Skynet on this poor old six-meter giant. About 20 people took up the invitation. And we smashed it up. We smashed it up with gusto! It was a fitting end to the night.

And then everyone picked up a piece and took it out to the trash can in the street, or took it home as a souvenir.

The picture shows the hero of the hour.

Victoria Aprelskaya (question from the community): I have a question! Peter, how do people (who are not specialists in the subject) usually react when they find out that you work with robotic technologies? How did you explain to your parents what it is, and that you’re not trying to create another Skynet? I’m asking since my father, if he heard robot technology mentioned, would immediately think I was making a T-2000 Terminator.

Peter Levich: Let me split this question into two parts. How did my parents react? Fine. They are scientists and they have a general understanding of what this is about.

How do others react? Well, it’s worth noting that science and technology are really in fashion at the moment, and that can only be good news. Usually, people ask about robotics and what is going on in the field right now. Skynet also creeps in, but mainly as a joke.

But of course, my experience is irrelevant. I mean, I’m not afraid of meeting different people, but obviously I, like anyone else, move within a certain social group. So serious misunderstandings never occur.

OI: The question of social groups is particularly important subject. A concentration of many like-minded people can have a cardinal effect on what we do and how we do it: by the way, this is one of the reasons why clusters of any kind (from co-working spaces to, for example, the newly-launched Innopolis) drastically change the rules of the game.

And at the same time they are susceptible to various risks: a closed community, including a scientific one, is likely to gradually isolate itself and stop popularizing the principal idea around which it is focused.

I think this overlaps with the ethics of technology concept, at least in theory. As for practice, what do you think? What are the main problems we are already coming across in this area?

Peter Levich: In principle, cluster communities are not homogenous. Well, not if we construct these communities correctly, that is. Otherwise, it is not a cluster community, but something else.

The main idea of clusters is to bring together in one place, if not physically then virtually, people who play different roles in the chain of technical progress. That is, theoretical scientists, R&D scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, investors and students. This is how we kick-start cross-fertilization and exponential growth.
It is worth remembering here that the classical scientific communities you mentioned – and this means universities – are also starting to understand this and are trying to become clusters. They are introducing technoparks, co-working spaces, investor dinners, and corporate R&D offices in large numbers. So the problems that you mentioned seem to arise in cases where people do not build cluster communities correctly.

Vladislav Shtulman (question from the community): Returning to the subject of literature, I would like to ask you a question. Who are your favorite sci-fi authors and are there books which, when you read them now, make you think “This has come true!” or “I helped this to happen”?

Peter Levich: First of all, I was inspired by Asimov and the Strugatskys. In fact, little of what they wrote has come true. This is partly because in the twentieth century, there was a wave of interest in space and according to the Strugatskys, we should have flown to Venus in the 1980s.

But it didn’t turn out that way. At the end of the twentieth century, the Internet and computers appeared like a jack-in-the-box, and sci-fi turned into deep cyberpunk. Consequently, more things come true today from so-called “new sci-fi”, written by authors who work in the cyberpunk genre, which is not a bad thing. The Internet is probably humans’ most important invention. Aromorphosis, to use the evolutionary theory term.

However, I would like to believe that humans will yet return to the idea of romanticizing space. I hope this from a purely pragmatic point of view – species from a single planet do not survive. We need to create a self-replicating colony on another planet as soon as possible. After all, the whole of the Internet and cyberpunk could be wiped out by any global disaster. But I’m side-tracking.

To answer the last part of the question: I try to contribute to cyberpunk, space, and the technological future in general as much as I can, though my efforts are modest as yet. But I think that everyone has some kind of subconscious ideal world, created from books and movies and the way they were raised and educated. And always, when taking a decision or making a choice, we consciously or subconsciously weigh up whether it will bring us closer to that world or not. Mine was created by sci-fi, and that’s why I do what I do.

But it’s not just books that have influenced me. Movies and TV series have also played their part. There is a good case study which illustrated the link between science fiction and technical progress: according to a survey, 70% of NASA lunar program employees chose this profession as children because of watching Star Trek.

Stanislav Bykovsky (question from the community): My question is about something slightly different, but perhaps you could answer it if you can? Could humanity turn into some kind of microchipped cyborg in the future? What is your opinion on this? If it is possible, would this be a good or a bad thing, in your view? And does religion have any role to play in your profession?

Peter Levich: Yes, humans could turn into cyborgs, and it’s highly likely that they will. We don’t notice it, but this process began a long time ago. Basically, cyborgization is an expansion of humanity’s potential using external means. The moment the first ape picked up a stick, it was on the road to cyborgization. It doesn’t matter if the part is attached to us or not. Glasses are separate parts that help people live. Contact lenses also seem to be removable. But if we put them under our corneas, they become attached to us, although essentially we have changed nothing. So it’s a very hazy line to draw.

I can’t say if this is good or bad, it’s probably just inevitable, like technical progress in general. Returning to the subject of public policy and science policy, humanity’s task here is not to prohibit technical progress, but to make sure that people can interact with it comfortably.

To answer your last question, personally I am an atheist, a transhumanist, and that’s all. I don’t know if deeply religious robotics scientists exist. It’s completely possible that they do. But overall I sense the rise of a certain conflict in society between conservatism (and in religion, as an integral part of that) and transhumanism. I would like to believe that this conflict will not escalate into open confrontation. This is also an issue in the ethics of technology, incidentally.

Alexander Mamzurenko (question from the community): And these people then say “A robot cannot harm people!” We need to set up a society for the protection of robots right away.

Can I ask a question? It’s not directly about robots. Genetic modification and all that is very interesting, but as I see it, the main danger from the development of robotics is likely to be social and economic. A couple of hundred years ago the Industrial Revolution put thousands of people out of work. Overall, this was for the good of humanity, of course, but it was still the cause of a crisis that had to be somehow resolved.

A revolution in robotics could have much more serious consequences (the population is much larger, in developed countries people are used to high incomes, and in poorer countries they are used to at least some kind of income). Do you see a way out of this situation, including with the help of your industry? How can robotics help to deal with a crisis that it has created itself?

Peter Levich: Yes, of course the problem of robots taking jobs is a familiar one. And it’s a difficult question, to which I do not have a full and precise answer. But let’s try looking at it.

In principle, there are many professions which have disappeared and this hasn’t been a problem, at least in the light of the history of human development. For example, there are no more horse carriage drivers. At all. They’ve gone, apart from about 5,000 left across the entire country, driving wedding parties around town centers. But there used to be as many of them in proportion to the number of people on the planet as there are taxi drivers today. That is an incredible figure. But they have gradually assimilated into other professions although, it goes without saying, there was also a lot of fear and discussion about it at the time.

Therefore, the fact that new technology reshapes the labor market and society in general is nothing new. The speed at which it happens is probably more important. The question is whether people will be able to adapt to robotics. And I agree that there will always be some problems with this. But the market, including the labor market, has the ability to self-regulate, which allows for some optimism.

Returning to science fiction: it is evident that this robotization of work is aimed at creating a world in which people only work in art and science, or are simply at leisure. All other jobs are done by robots. Do we want to live in such a world? This is an open question. I do. But I can understand the motivation behind someone who doesn’t.

A possible solution here could be, again, colonizing a different planet. In this case there would be enough work for all – people and robots.

Vladislav Shtulman (question from the community): Not for nothing did Tsiolkovsky write “Humankind will not stay forever on Earth, but in the race for light and space will first gingerly make its way beyond the atmosphere and then conquer all of solar space.” To me, that’s our future.

Imagine that we have created robots, the smartest computer, and technology has begun to play an enormous role in governing the state. What political system awaits us – a cyberdemocracy, a noocracy or an autocracy of artificial intelligence?

Peter Levich: I can’t predict this exactly. All three are possible! And so are many others.

So I’ll say which one I like the most. The neuroweb seems like a good prospect, and as a result, decision making will be distributed. This is something half way between a cyberdemocracy and a noocracy.

OI: Peter, let’s hope that, when we move to different planets, we don’t forget that we have only one Earth and that technologies can also help us preserve and protect it.

Thank you very much for being with us here today, and thank you to the community which joined us. See you at the Forum!

Peter Levich: And thank you for your interest. The subject of dreams came up a few times. This is what this picture’s about!



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