Black Robotics Engineers on Whether Robots Will Kill Us All


On a lively panel at Black Enterprise’s TechConneXt Tech Summit, two black robotics engineers discussed artificial intelligence and robotics. Both weighed in on whether robots are harmful to human beings, and especially to the livelihood of people of color.

Dr. Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu Dr. Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu (Image: File)

The panel, hosted by CEO and founder of facial recognition tech company Kairos, Brian Brackeen, included Terrence Southern, a tech founder and robotics engineer for GE. Also participating was Dr. Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu, an award-winning and esteemed roboticist at NASA.

A portion of the panel focused on the anxious perceptions people harbor about robots and their threat of replacing human labor as well as their potential danger.

Many Jobs Will Become Obsolete

Southern was adamant that these machines would replace some jobs. “There is already a robot chef,” he told the audience. Indeed, German company Moley Robotics created a robot chef that can create a meal from scratch by mimicking the movements of a human chef.

He also mentioned that many fast-food enterprises are looking at robots as a way of automating business operations and cutting costs.

Trebi-Ollennu quelled some fears about job loss after an audience member asked about robot labor’s impact on blacks and other minorities, who are already at a disadvantage in the job market.

Robots mean that there will be more “high-skill” jobs available, said Trebi-Ollennu. He mentioned that it is important that classrooms provide adequate skills young people will need to work in a high-tech world.

Some of the new jobs that will be in demand according to both panelists will include robot programmers, technicians, builders, and people that can fix and maintain automated vehicles.

How Deadly Are Robots?

One woman in the audience asked the question that was surely in the back of many minds: With artificial intelligence and robotics, can intelligent machines hurt or even kill humans?

Southern pointed out that many industrial robots are huge machines with the ability to crush or maim any humans working next to them. He said that “collaborative robots” are a big area of research because they allow robots and humans to work safely side-by-side.

Trebi-Ollennu insisted that any notion of robots eventually dominating or killing humans was the stuff of science fiction. “We use them as tools to help humans,” he assured.



The Road to TechConneXt: Dr. Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu, Robotics Engineer

Dr. Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu

Dr. Ashitey Trebi-Ollenu is one of the esteemed academics and scientists who will participate in Black Enterprise’s upcoming TechConneXt Tech Summit. Dr. Trebi-Ollenu designs robots for NASA and is regarded as one of the leading roboticists in the world. He currently is the product delivery manager for the InSight Mars Mission Instrument Deployment System as the Instrument Deployment System Operations team chief, and he is a technical group lead in the Robotic Manipulation and Sampling group at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at the California Institute of Technology.

tcs-logoDr. Trebi-Ollenu was involved in developing, operating, and building the robotic missions for Mars exploration, including the Curiosity Rover, Phoenix Mars Lander, and MER missions.

The NASA Jet Propulsion Lab is the agency’s research and development center dedicated to creating robotic spacecraft and also for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network—its interplanetary telecommunications system.

Born in Ghana, Dr. Treni-Ollenu has a Ph.D. in Control Systems Engineering, from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Royal Military College Science, as well as a in Avionics from the Department of Aeronautical Engineering, at London’s Queen Mary College.

Dr. Trebi-Ollennu has worked on flight projects, flight projects review boards, mission formulation, technology tasks, and writing technology proposals. He also served as a reviewer for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate technology proposals and the NASA Office of Education proposals. His areas of research include planet rovers, man-machine interactions, mobile robots, and more.

In 2008, Dr. Trebi-Ollennu received the NASA Exceptional Engineering Achievement Medal. This is awarded to those who have made unusually significant engineering contributions towards achievement of aeronautical or space exploration goals. His other awards and honors include the 2007 Outstanding Engineer Award from IEEE Region 6; the 2007 Sir Monty Finniston Achievement Medal from Institution of Engineering and Technology; the U.K. 2010 Specialist Silver Award from the Royal Aeronautical Society; and The 21st Century Trailblazer Award in Systems Engineering from the U.S.A. National Society of Black Engineers, at the 2012 NSBE Aerospace Systems Conference.

Dr. Trebi-Ollenu will be part of a distinguished panel discussing advancements and opportunities in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics at TechConneXt.