The roboticist who refuses military funding

Why robotics professor Illah Nourbakhsh turned down the cash

Wired for War

This is an extract from Wired for War by PW Singer, exploring the ever-growing role of robotics in warfare.

Illah Nourbakhsh is an Associate Professor of Robotics in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. He is also the military robotics world's worst nightmare, the scientist who learned to say "No, thank you."

"As a kid, I was interested in taking things apart and putting them back together in weird ways," tells Nourbakhsh. He worked on solar car racers in college and then went to Stanford for graduate school. His research topics varied from genomics to AI.

He recalls when he first plugged his AI software into robots. "I was blown away by how little they could do. It was painfully obvious that robotics was delinquent." So, he came back to his interest in taking things apart and putting back them together, weirder and better, and decided to make a career in the robotics field.

As with most other students, much of the support for his early research came from Pentagon money. Soon, Nourbakhsh began to get requests for specific applications of his robotic research to battlefield scenarios. This was around the same time that he was taking a class which examined at the social side of technology. "I had my epiphany moment. I put my foot down and said 'I won't do it.'"

When Nourbakhsh talks about the writers that influenced him the most, his decision begins to make even more sense. Rather than referencing science fiction as many other scientists do, he talks about the novels of Walter Percy, the southern writer who wrestled with the ability of science to explain the basic mysteries of human existence.

He recalls how a character in one of Percy's novels contemplated committing suicide. They ultimately decided not to, as that would be the last decision they ever made, as compared to all the other things they could choose to do with life.

It became a sort of guidepost for Nourbakhsh as he wrestled with whether or not to take the military's money. "The general feeling I had was that every time you choose to do something, you are explicitly choosing not to do everything else. The point isn't what not to do, but what can you do best. That is, whatever you choose, choose what is most important to you."

As a young graduate student, then, Nourbakhsh resolved to refuse all military money and choose to work only on the most positive research work he could find. "I wanted to feel I was working on something with immediate social-positive impact, rather than something neutral that could be used for good or ill later…I want to be able to say I've done some good in the world."

His decision, however, had financial consequences. "It is very easy to take the DARPA money and look at it as only for long-term research…It is hard to get millions from any other source, plus you have a far better chance of winning DARPA grants than others."

Yet, a full decade in, Nourbakhsh's plan has worked out. His current research projects include educational and social robotics, electric wheelchair sensing devices, believable robot personality, visual navigation, and robot locomotion.

Nourbakhsh supports such programs with commercial sales of the products he's developed and with corporate research support from firms like Intel, Google, and Microsoft (He just laughed when I joked, "How is Microsoft less spooky than DARPA?").

He is particularly excited about a program that used robotics as educational tool for expanding the number of people working on technology. He's found that if you can get youngsters excited about technology, you can also use it as an avenue for teaching them other valuable life skills.

With his credo in mind then, Nourbakhsh helped found Robotic Autonomy, a summer robotics camp for under-privileged kids from San Jose. Using an "Ikea-like robotics set" that he designed, the kids are taught engineering and computer programming skills.

They then compete in such challenges as "robotic musical chairs." The side effect of building robots, the instructors have found, is that the kids also build teamwork and leadership skills, as well as get excited about science and education. Many of the children coming from poor neighbourhoods have later ended up going to Ivy-League schools.

In the last few years, Nourbakhsh has noticed a change. While no one really cared about his refusal of Pentagon money when he was a graduate student, he is starting to make waves as a professor.

He tells how several colleagues have quietly come up to him to say, "We are watching you. If you pull this off for several years, we may well do the same." He ends our talk by saying, "I'm a guinea pig and that makes me more firmly resolved to prove that it's possible."

Buy Wired for War from Amazon UK.

Article continues below