A Call for Humanitarian Robotics


Robotics will drive untold benefits for humanity. But as we pursue the future, we can’t forget our very real present needs

Robotics are beginning to transform a broad spectrum of industries. But what’s far more exciting is the potential for robotics and AI to drive innovation that alleviates human suffering of many kinds, both directly and indirectly. While we’re excited about the application to autonomous vehicles or manufacturing, what’s potentially more inspiring is the opportunity to scale and dramatically improve disaster relief efforts.

Humanitarian efforts, the world over, will be greatly advanced by the development of these emerging technologies. While we focus on conquering the impossible and transforming the way things work, it is also our imperative to capitalize on the opportunity to create a better society.

First Things First

Before we can begin to realize the potential of humanitarian robotics, we have to address the most common question people ask about the future of human and machine collaboration. Will robots take our jobs? Will robots create a more unequal society?

This is a legitimate question. Unfortunately, it’s also a question that tends to derail productive discourse about the ways robotics and AI can be developed responsibly and for the greater good of humanity.

Back in 1962, Doug Engelbart hypothesized that the future of our race lay not in replacing humans but in augmenting them. His work culminated in the invention of the computer mouse, which is still remembered by many as “the mother of all demos.”

After Apple and Microsoft repackaged it for commercial deployment, the mouse changed the course of modern life and human productivity. Similarly, at this inflection point of robotics, I actually think we’re looking at a massive productivity leap forward that allows us humans to accomplish more, not less.

By assigning robots the task of working in hazardous conditions — poor lighting, toxic chemicals, tight spaces, and heavy lifting — we remove risk to humans of workplace injuries. Diamond mines, for example, pose innumerable risks that could be mitigated for humans by deploying a robot to tight spaces at depth, where landslides are prone to cause injury. By deploying robots to execute dangerous tasks, we can keep humans from harm’s way.

We can also use robots to assist humans, so they can continue to work without fearing long-term health issues, such as chronic lower back pain, occupational asthma, or upper limb disorders.

Take robot-assisted surgery, for example. Surgical robots are advanced enough to allow for remote surgery, and have dramatically improved the limitations of minimally invasive surgery.

Exoskeletons are currently being developed to help workers with heavy-lifting and provide support for strenuous tasks. Intelligence amplification will open new opportunities for alleviating suffering and improving the human condition. Efforts like these in robotics and AI will create more jobs, safer jobs, jobs that we have not yet imagined.

And I am moreover certain that human ambition will grow proportionately — if not exponentially — once we are freed to focus on doing what we humans do best.

I’m optimistic, as you can tell. From the first femur repurposed by primitive man into a hammer straight through to the latest iPhone, new technologies have continually amplified our natural abilities. This trend will not abate anytime soon.

Back to Basics

In any discussion around these topics, we can easily get too far ahead of ourselves. I’d love to concern myself and my philanthropic team with things like universal basic income, but what I’m really worried about is that, right now, 50 million people can’t see. Their eyes are failing them, and so are we.

That’s why I’ve committed to take the majority of any profits I realize through my investments in robotics and AI and put them towards far more basic and urgent human needs. We should keep ambitiously pursuing what we formerly believed to be impossible. The majority of our effort, however, should still go toward attending the most basic requirements of our fellow humans.

This is why I’m driven to eradicate blindness. A similar belief guided Bill Gates to focus on eradicating malaria. Access to water is equally fundamental to our existence. Many families aren’t worried about being replaced by a robot. Instead they’re worried about basic crop viability. Their fear is becoming a climate or economic refugee.

Many families aren’t worried about being replaced by a robot. Instead they’re worried about basic crop viability.

Sadly, it’s all too easy to forget that we could solve most of the world’s most basic problems today, right now, if we only had the will, and the same entrepreneurial focus that we apply elsewhere. It’s impossible for me to ignore the fact that in the face of all these next-generation innovations with robotics as a key focus, fundamental access to basic resources remains out of reach for far too many of our fellow citizens.

We must therefore invest in the future so that we can give to the present. I encourage all of you to do the same. In fact, the idea of investing in the “five senses” of robotics first captured my attention because it resonates with my philanthropic mission to cure blindness.

It is our imperative to shape emerging technologies in such a way that is socially responsible and beneficial to humanity as a whole. We are progressing in the right direction: Innovations in the fields of such as surgical robotics, exoskeletons, and intelligent amplification are a small sample of how advancements in robotics are uniquely poised to improve the quality of life in work and in life.

But none of that matters if we’ve neglected the fundamental building blocks of peaceful and productive civilization along the way.

A False Divide

Increasingly we have proven that it is possible to do well by doing good, no matter where you live or the resources you command.

In 2005 I founded the Tej Kohli Foundation primarily to cure cornea blindness. In 2015 Tej Kohli Cornea Institute (TKCI) was founded in collaboration with the L V Prasad Eye Institute (LVPEI) to further the cause of preventing blindness and restoring the eyesight of people everywhere.

Since 1987, LVPEI have completed more than a million eye surgeries, representing a significant majority of the cornea transplants that have been performed total worldwide. I’m proud to say that we’re marching steadily towards our goal of reducing cases of blindness worldwide by half by 2030.

So far, our primary approach to curing corneal disease has been to develop methods of synthesizing cornea from yeast and peptides. Here too, technology is key. Biosynthetic corneas are the answer to the high demand. There is so much more to be done, however.

Take, for example, the millions of digital patient records collected by TKCI, which are invaluable for the development of preventative algorithms. Our machine learning team is urgently pursuing technology-enabled solutions that can help us have an even bigger impact.

I’m enormously hopeful that machine vision and other applied technologies being developed by AI and robotics experts will play an essential role in the fight to cure blindness, and other diseases too. Human problems and technological challenges have more solutions in common than you might realize.

Any fundamental health or humanitarian crisis demands that we continue to innovate and think broadly. We all know that solutions to seemingly intractable human problems have frequently emerged from unexpected places. So here’s to a more humanitarian vision of robotics. Machines won’t replace us. Rather, they’ll accelerate the impact of the solutions we’ve already developed, and present wholly new opportunities to responsibly advance our civilization too.

Tej Kohli is a committed philanthropist, Chairman of Kohli Ventures, and a backer of Rewired, a new $100 million robotics studio.

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