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Are we ready for the robot revolution?

We’ve come a long way since Robot Wars – designing machines to destroy one another. Now, we’re designing machines to partake in world renowned activities.

In December 2017, a robot carried the Olympic torch for 500 feet, drilled a hole in a wall and passed the flame to its creator, Professor Jun-ho – all to demonstrate South Korea’s advancements in robotics.

But it didn’t stop there. South Korea has used the Games in Pyeongchang to demonstrate its robotic capabilities in more ways. There are autonomous vacuum robots, robots that offer gate information, translator robots, robots serving drinks – even robots painting murals. 5G equipped autonomous buses are getting people to and from their destinations and there’s even a robot-only ski competition. It doesn’t stop there either. Japan is planning to use the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo to showcase its technology in a ‘robot village’.

All of this demonstrates how quickly the robotics sector is growing and the progress made, even in the last year, astonishes me.

CES was an excellent example, with a variety of robots taking centre stage. However, impressive as some of the creations were, some had me asking: ‘Why?’ Perhaps that’s short-sighted; maybe this kind of technology will develop into useful products.

Some projects have already set out to do this. For example, the Ocado bots have been developed to pick and load produce, while pet bots and assistive care robots are helping those suffering with illnesses such as dementia. New Electronics reported on several devices in 2013 relating to the latter, with Paro, the robotic seal, demonstrating that it could evoke an emotional bond similar to that of a real-life pet, and Kompaï offering pill reminders or asking questions to stimulate activity.

For all of our flaws, we’re pretty good innovators, but we’re also a bit lazy. We like shortcuts, we want instant results, we also like ‘new and cool stuff’ – it’s why we want the latest phones and why so many things get bought and tossed aside. These are all things designed to make our lives easier. It’s not just about an easy ride though; humans like companionship and robots can – to a limited extent – offer that.

International Data Corporation (IDC) expects that this year’s worldwide spending on robotics and drones will increase by more than 22% from last year to $103.1billion. By 2021, IDC anticipates this will more than double to $218.4bn.

More robots to keep people company, more bots to help us navigate an airport or to drive us home, bots to form relationships with, bots to take on the arduous or dull work. That’s fantastic – isn’t it? The fear is that robots will start taking work from humans – even replace us. Where would that leave us? https://willrobotstakemyjob.com calculates the risk of your job being taken by robots. Fortunately, as a journalist I’m apparently at ‘minimal risk.’

For robotic engineers, booming demand is great news and should mean a constant stream of work. But part of me wonders about the future. Robotics is already used to create robotics, but what if that takes one step further? Where does that leave engineers? What if you develop something that is more advanced than you?

Surely, robots can’t replace us? Humans are human because of their emotions. Robots don’t (yet) have access to this…at least not properly. They are built to please, to help. But as the Turing Test suggested, exhibiting human behaviour in a robot is very different to creating an intelligent bot, because humans make mistakes. This means, in order to be mistaken for human, robots must be designed to make mistakes.

And for humans, the question is whether we want a robot like that in Ex Machina, designed to be a lover or friend, or whether we want one that is better than us, able to think fast and logically and to carry out work to a higher standard than us?

We’re heading for a robot revolution, but are we ready for what we are able to create? We’ve come a long way since Robot Wars and we’re certainly not done yet.

Author
Bethan Grylls

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