The human face of robotics

Pat Chapman-Pincher posted this on

I’ve wondered in the last few weeks, as storms have swept across the UK, why we are now giving names to UK storms? Is this an attempt to humanise something that is beyond our control? I think this is important as part of the debate about what is the long-term future and role of robotics.

Robotics seems to be going down the humanisation route. Emma Jacobs wrote an interesting article in the FT about Robots having a “gender”. Her argument was thought provoking – that we are in danger of continuing workplace stereotyping into the new age of robots!

As children we become familiar with storybook animals that wear clothes, use human speech and have all the characteristics of humans, just with fur and big ears.

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Robots are given human faces and human names. In some way this makes them more acceptable because they appear to be more like us.

Some of the droids in Star Wars have human characteristics, they walk and talk like people even though this might not be the most efficient way for a robot to operate.   They are human enough for us to feel comfortable. We can recognise them and that makes us feel that we can control them.

As the artificial intelligence (AI) debate grows and robotics are positioned as everything from the answer to elderly care to the thing that will bring about the death of humanity, the attempt to humanise robots is really clouding the issue.

Robots are not people, much as we would like to portray them that way. They are machines. They are machines that are becoming smarter by the day, they do many of the things that we can do and they do them more accurately and faster and they can do them twenty four hours a day.

There is debate over when robots will get to be smarter than people – somewhere between 10 and 20 years seems to be the current thinking. They can substitute the work that many of us do. Robots have worked in manufacturing for a long time but increasingly they do the jobs of accountants, lawyers, and architects. They will drive cars on our roads and play major roles in medicine and education. They will substitute for human workers, they will not substitute for human beings and we should not pretend that they might.

What we must do is take robotics seriously. Far too much of the debates about artificial intelligence is focused on its possible long term effects. While there are valid long term concerns worrying about long term effects can stop us working on shorter term benefits.

All new technologies come with their own collection doom-mongers. When railways were being built in England there were passionate debates about the damage they would do to farm animals in fields along the railway and a number of eminent physicians thought that women’s frail frames would never stand up to the stresses of travelling at such speed.

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Would we have introduced the motor car if we had known how many lives it would claim? Interestingly it was argued at an LSE debate recently that by 2025 humans would be banned from driving cars because of the risks involved and all cars would be driverless – so we may have come full circle!

All technology comes with risk; but it also comes with benefits. Both the risks and the benefits are often unforeseen. The potential risks of AI are getting a lot of money and attention, the benefits less so. Firstly there are the many, many ways (including the driverless car) in which robotics can keep people safer. Whether it is working to clear nuclear waste, on the battlefield, helping in medical diagnosis or working alongside surgeons, robots can do so much. They can go into hostile environments; they can process data far faster than we can; they are tireless where humans get tired.

If we can work with robots rather than work to contain them the world will be a much better place. Robots are not substitutes for people. They may substitute for some of the work people currently do but used in partnership they can make our lives richer and better. In order to do that we need to research, invest and apply the benefits robotics can bring.

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