So. What do we mean by ‘robot’? Well, technically, a robot is a machine that has the ability to sense, plan and act.
Sci-fi movies would convince you that robots are superior beings who want to destroy and replace all humans but in reality we’ve had them in our homes since the 1950s in the form of washing machines, dishwashers and heating-regulators like Nest’s thermostat.
The juicy bit that most of us associate with robotics is Artificial Intelligence (AI) – a controversial and very topical field of study. AI refers to the ability to learn, reason and formulate original ideas, which leads to all kinds of complicated ethical matters – for more details on the dangers of AI, contact your local conspiracy theorist.
Of the existing robots out there, they can broadly be categorised as robots that simplify life like the Amazon echo, robots with purpose like PR2 and robots with soul like those by the wonderful Guy Hoffman.
Robots V Humans
As the tech steps up, some big ethical debates are starting to emerge: should robots be allowed to function invisibly in the background? Should all humans be able to overrule a robot’s command? What is the true purpose of AI?
At the heart of all these questions is the debate on how humans and robots should interact. Humans, the impatient beings that we are, become quickly frustrated with robots when they are unable to perform a task that even a human child could do. Trials between robots and humans have found we fail to fully empathise with machines even though they’re performing incredibly complex tasks. This leads to the saddest truth of burgeoning technology: humans are quick to be cruel to robots.
The method that scientists are looking at to make robots more appealing to humans is mimicry. It’s a strategy to target our soft spot for cuteness or, as it’s known in the industry, ‘capitalise on adorable’. Just like Gus Hoffman’s robot with soul, we’re much kinder to machines when they behave in a way we recognise. Little quirks and mannerisms such as a robot tilting its head instead of blasting ‘DOES NOT COMPUTE’ make us humans that much nicer to little cyborgs.
Whether robots can fully integrate with humans is a question too big for one blog piece. What we do know is that retail stores have already become testing grounds for machines like the OSHbot to approach and guide humans to their desired product. In the meantime, Wendy Ju of Standford University’s Centre for Design Research sums it up pretty well with ‘robots pretty much a thing now’ but it’s worth keeping in mind the words of Leila Takayama, a human-robot interaction researcher at Hoku Labs and Google:
“Having spent time with a lot of robots, I’m not worried about them taking over!”
Photos courtesy of: Wired, Open Source Delivers, Convergent Science Network, Razor Robotics, Marco Mascorro