Can we replace politicians with robots?

 A robot for an MP – who’d vote for that? Shutterstock/Mombo

Jonathan Roberts, Queensland University of Technology and Frank Mols, The University of Queensland

If you had the opportunity to vote for a politician you totally trusted, who you were sure had no hidden agendas and who would truly represent the electorate’s views, you would, right?

What if that politician was a robot? Not a human with a robotic personality but a real artificially intelligent robot.

Futures like this have been the stuff of science fiction for decades. But can it be done? And, if so, should we pursue this?

Lost trust

Recent opinion polls show that trust in politicians has declined rapidly in Western societies and voters increasingly use elections to cast a protest vote.

This is not to say that people have lost interest in politics and policy-making. On the contrary, there is evidence of growing engagement in non-traditional politics, suggesting people remain politically engaged but have lost faith in traditional party politics.

More specifically, voters increasingly feel the established political parties are too similar and that politicians are preoccupied with point-scoring and politicking. Disgruntled voters typically feel the big parties are beholden to powerful vested interests, are in cahoots with big business or trade unions, and hence their vote will not make any difference.

Another symptom of changing political engagement (rather than disengagement) is the rise of populist parties with a radical anti-establishment agenda and growing interest in conspiracy theories, theories which confirm people’s hunch that the system is rigged.

The idea of self-serving politicians and civil-servants is not new. This cynical view has been popularised by television series such as the BBC’s Yes Minister and the more recent US series House of Cards (and the original BBC series).

We may have lost faith in traditional politics but what alternatives do we have? Can we replace politicians with something better?

Machine thinking

One alternative is to design policy-making systems in such a way that policy-makers are sheltered from undue outside influence. In so doing, so the argument goes, a space will be created within which objective scientific evidence, rather than vested interests, can inform policy-making.

At first glance this seems worth aspiring to. But what of the many policy issues over which political opinion remains deeply divided, such as climate change, same sex marriage or asylum policy?

Policy-making is and will remain inherently political and policies are at best evidence-informed rather than evidence-based. But can some issues be depoliticised and should we consider deploying robots to perform this task?

Those focusing on technological advances may be inclined to answer “yes”. After all, complex calculations that would have taken years to complete by hand can now be solved in seconds using the latest advances in information technology.

Such innovations have proven extremely valuable in certain policy areas. For example, urban planners examining the feasibility of new infrastructure projects now use powerful traffic modelling software to predict future traffic flows.

Those focusing on social and ethical aspects, on the other hand, will have reservations. Technological advances are of limited use in policy issues involving competing beliefs and value judgements.

A fitting example would be euthanasia legislation, which is inherently bound up religious beliefs and questions about self-determination. We may be inclined to dismiss the issue as exceptional, but this would be to overlook that most policy issues involve competing beliefs and value judgements, and from that perspective robot politicians are of little use.

Moral codes

A supercomputer may be able to make accurate predictions of numbers of road users on a proposed ring road. But what would this supercomputer do when faced with a moral dilemma?

Most people will agree that it is our ability to make value judgements that sets us apart from machines and makes us superior. But what if we could program agreed ethical standards into computers and have them take decisions on the basis of predefined normative guidelines and the consequences arising from these choices?

If that were possible, and some believe it is, could we replace our fallible politicians with infallible artificially intelligent robots after all?

The idea may sound far-fetched, but is it?

Robots may well become part of everyday life sooner than we think. For example, robots may soon be used to perform routine tasks in aged-care facilities, to keep elderly or disabled people company and some have suggested robots could be used in prostitution. Whatever opinion we may have about robot politicians, the groundwork for this is already being laid.

A recent paper showcased a system that automatically writes political speeches. Some of these speeches are believable and it would be hard for most of us to tell if a human or machine had written them.

Politicians already use human speech writers so it may only be a small step for them to start using a robot speech writer instead.

The same applies to policy-makers responsible for, say, urban planning or flood mitigation, who make use of sophisticated modelling software. We may soon be able to take out humans altogether and replace them with robots with the modelling software built into itself.

We could think up many more scenarios, but the underlying issue will remain the same: the robot would need to be programmed with an agreed set of ethical standards allowing it to make judgements on the basis of agreed morals.

The human input

So even if we had a parliament full of robots, we would still need an agency staffed by humans charged with defining the ethical standards to be programmed into the robots.

And who gets to decide on those ethical standards? Well we’d probably have to put that to the vote between various interested and competing parties.

This bring us full circle, back to the problem of how to prevent undue influence.

Advocates of deliberative democracy, who believe democracy should be more than the occasional stroll to a polling booth, will shudder at the prospect of robot politicians.

But free market advocates, who are more interested in lean government, austerity measures and cutting red-tape, may be more inclined to give it a go.

The latter appear to have gained the upper hand, so the next time you hear a commentator refer to a politician as being robotic, remember that maybe one day some of them really will be robots!

Frank Mols, Lecturer in Political Science, The University of Queensland and Jonathan Roberts, Professor in Robotics, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A digital beehive could warn beekeepers when their hives are under attack

Bee keeper inspecting a frame of honeycomb. Author provided.

Marcus Foth, Queensland University of Technology; Alethea Blackler, Queensland University of Technology, and Paul Cunningham, Queensland University of Technology

Honey bees are responsible for pollinating crops worth more than US$19 billion and for producing about US$385 million in honey a year in the United States. In Australia, honey bee production is a A$92-million industry.

But throughout the world, honey bees are disappearing at an alarming rate. Since 1990, more than 25% of the managed honey bee population in the US has disappeared.

Why is this happening? The decline has mainly been attributed to a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD). Although still poorly understood, it is thought to be caused by the combined effect of interrelated factors that weaken hive health.

These include shifting flowering seasons due to climate change, reduced floral diversity, use of pesticides, habitat loss, lack of genetic diversity, insect parasites and harmful microorganisms.

Bee hive design

The beehive itself plays a key role in increasing honey bee resilience. Curiously though, the Langstroth hive most common among commercial beekeepers today is almost completely unchanged since its invention in the late 1850s.

A typical Langstroth bee hive, a design not changed for many years.
Shutterstock/Geoffrey Kuchera

A Langstroth hive provides a plethora of design opportunities to greatly benefit both bees and beekeepers. Beekeepers regularly inspect their hives to check the health of the colony, the laying pattern of the queen, the quantity of honey and to detect pests and diseases.

The inspection process involves disassembling the hive into almost all its component parts, inspecting each one and then reassembling the colony and moving onto the next.

This is a stressful and destructive process for honey bees and can temporarily weaken the colony and attract pests. For example, Small Hive Beetle hunts down hives by smell and then lays its larvae in the honeycomb.

The tools for opening the hive and the hive components themselves can be responsible for infection from bacterial diseases such as American Foulbrood, which can quickly destroy a healthy hive.

Underpinning the Langstroth hive’s modular design and movable comb frames is bee space – the goldilocks zone of space that is not so small that bees gum it up with their own building material propolis, and not so large that they try to build bracing honeycomb structures in between. A Langstroth hive is so practical that its design has not changed in almost 160 years, until now.

The crowdfunded FlowHive drains honey from a comb without requiring its removal. The brood of the colony still needs to be examined and monitored in the conventional way using protective gear and a smoker.

We are experimenting with bee-centred design. These are hives designed to provide a more natural equilibrium between bees and beekeepers. With the rise of the urban hobby apiarist, armed with a handful of open-source technology tools, the physical design of the beehive itself is in the spotlight of the makers and tinkerers.

Digital hive plans made available free online are in a continual state of iteration as FabLabs and maker spaces around the world create new 3D printed prototypes.

The digital beehive

The focus of the maker movement is not limited to the physical design of the beehive, but is also increasingly introducing digital sensors.

With some early experiments in temperature and humidity monitoring in hives, a number of products and crowd funding campaigns have launched, offering beekeepers the ability to remotely monitor their hives on their smart phone.

These products offer hive weight readings so that beekeepers know when to harvest their honey, GPS locations for tracking stolen hives, even bee counters so that bee foraging patterns may be detected.

While these sensors have been used in other contexts, the ability to transmit and interpret datasets is new to beekeeping. This provides not just data but a suite of tools from which the health of a bee colony can be deduced.

While many such technology applications are still in their infancy, a vibrant community of artists, scientists and engineers are also designing systems that retrofit existing hives.

Professor Paulo de Souza, a CSIRO entomologist in Tasmania, is gluing tiny RFID chips to bees in a quest to track generational impacts of pesticide exposure and genetically modified pollen.

Anne Marie Maes, an artist in Brussels, is sampling sounds through hive embedded piezo-electric microphones. Her aim is to recognise hive health by identifying patterns in the audio datasets.

The EyesOnHives system uses cameras to optically track individual bee movements. Using an approach similar to image recognition systems, it develops day-to-day signatures of the bee activities from which changes in hive conditions can be detected early while remedy is still possible.

Odour sensing and disease detection

With digital sensors being introduced into the beehive, hive odours have yet to be investigated, despite advances in odour sensing technology and its application to identifying human disease, environmental toxicity and food contamination.

In our recent research, we are combining expertise in insect olfaction, analytical chemistry and environmental informatics to pioneer a new approach: odour sensing for early detection of honey bee disease.

We are trialling electronic nose technology to explore ways in which it can be used by beekeepers as citizen scientists. Odour sensing to monitor hive health provides an unprecedented opportunity to increase the resilience of our food system using sensor technology and data analytics.

The rapid decline of honey bees worldwide is one of the most significant losses of a single species humans have faced. By investigating the use of odour sensors for honey bee hive health, we want to enable beekeepers to capture real-time data for early diagnosis that can help prevent the catastrophic losses of honey bee populations in Australia and worldwide.


Research assistance provided by Dan Cook, industrial design student at QUT, who was awarded a Vacation Research Experience Scholarship to work on this research project.

The Conversation

Marcus Foth, Professor, Urban Informatics, Queensland University of Technology; Alethea Blackler, Associate Professor and Head of Discipline for Industrial Design, Queensland University of Technology, and Paul Cunningham, Senior Research Fellow, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.