By 2015, Humanoid Robots Will Be Better Than You At Keeping Secrets

Can you keep a secret? No? Then by 2015, robots will be more trustworthy than you. 

That's the year scientists in Britain plan to introduce a new-and-improved Nao to the public. The adorable little robot will be equipped with advanced programming which will allow it to better protect and encrypt information stored within its database. According to researcher Dr. Ian Brown, the project grew out of the realization that the looming prevalence of robotic companions represents a new and unaddressed threat to privacy - particularly, Brown explains, since we're less guarded around such machines.

For this reason, robots must be capable of keeping personal information to themselves.

"When we begin to interact with friendly-looking humanoid robots, our expectations and assumptions shift," Brown explained. "New questions arise about how much we trust these devices. Some people might develop an emotional attachment to them, particularly in situations where robots play the role of companions. It is important, therefore, that we design robots that have privacy embedded into their design, so their information gathering is restricted to what is needed to interact and carry out their tasks, and information about the identity of their human users is kept to a minimum. Otherwise, these robot friends could betray the trust of the people they come into contact with, passing on information to third parties."


"Humanoid robots have the potential to gather, store and analyse data about our movements and activities," added Brown's research partner, Doctor Joss Wright. "While they provide opportunities to make our lives easier, the potential loss of control over this information should concern us. At Oxford we have been exploring how individuals can maintain control over information about themselves, while still enjoying the potential benefits of robotic technology."

Brown and Wright are part of a research team working on a two-million pound, three-year project examining the implications of robots in public spaces. Their group consists of individuals from the Universities of Oxford, Bath, Exeter, Queen Mary University of London and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. Eventually, they hope to use their findings to develop better techniques with which robotic helpers can assist their human partners.

According to Doctor Brown, in the future robots should ideally be able to record and transmit what they see and hear without revealing the identities of the people around them. For example, robots could match people into groups with similar interests- either online or at social events - without requiring anyone to actually share those interests.  

One use of this technology would be to allow commuters to search for car-pooling partners without having to broadcast the location of their house or workplace. Coupled with self-driving cars, which could see widespread distribution around the same time-frame, we could well see a complete overhaul in vehicular infrastructure.

Robots are becoming ever more popular and prevalent in our day to day lives. A natural consequence of this is that, particularly in the case of robot partners, they're going to see a side of us that most people never see; a cross-section of our deepest secrets. If they're incapable of  keeping this information private and confidential, we'll find it considerably more difficult to accept them into our lives.

After all, nobody likes a person who can't be trusted to keep a secret.

Doctor Brown is associate director of Oxford University's Cyber Security Center and Senior research fellow at The Oxford Institute. Doctor Joss Wright holds a PhD in Computer Science, and is a research fellow at the same University.