Robots: Friend or Foe?

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Humans have long strived to create machines with heart and those at the forefront of robotics are edging closer to such a breakthrough. Whether the relationship we form with robots in the coming years is one way, or, eventually reciprocal, there is no doubt that these mechanical giants could become as integral to our lives as a beloved family animal or colleague. But will we ever be able to build authentic rapport?

When Baymax from Big Hero 6 waddled his way onto screens in 2014, he did more than entertain children and adults alike, he helped to reset our perception of what robot friends might look like in the future. It’s easy to assume that Disney used plenty of creative license to conjure up Baymax, yet this fictional animation reflects very real research into soft robotics.

For many of us, cuddly characters don’t usually spring to mind when we’re asked to imagine the robots of our near future, but while conceiving Baymax, Disney director Don Hall was inspired by a real inflatable arm design created by researchers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While Baymax, with his artificial intelligence, is far more advanced than anything that currently exists in the field of robotics, he does provide a hint of what’s to come.

Appealing tactile qualities have always been a consideration in technology design so it makes sense that researchers will look to merge machinery with materials that don’t make us recoil.

In the coming years, robotic limbs made of balloon-style fabrics are plausible, but genuine companionship could be a lifetime away, according to Deakin University’s expert in mechatronics, Dr Ben Horan. We will see robots providing personal assistance, helping elderly people to get in and out of bed, for example. ‘Helping someone out of bed might not be the most complex task, but it does require physical strength that a robot can provide,’ he says.

In Japan, that robot could be coming to hospitals and aged care facilities soon. Robear was created by scientist Toshiharu Mukai as a tool to assist the ageing Japanese population. The cuteness was a consideration for Mukai. ‘Patients, especially old people, don’t like mechanical appearance. Patients need to feel that robots are their friends,’ he told The Verge in April 2015. Robear is still too expensive to be commercially available, but he could be present in the coming decades.

Helpful robots are already stepping (and rolling!) into our everyday lives. Consider Roomba, the iRobot, which will vacuum your floors for you every day. It’ll set you back about US$600, but what price can you put on having your very own robotic vacuum cleaner gobbling the dirt and dust from your floors while you kick back and relax?

Baxter, a manufacturing robot designed to work in factories, is among the most progressive of his kind. When we meet Baxter he’s playing a casual game of Connect Four at Deakin’s Geelong Waurn Ponds Campus. While Baxter was created in the US, it is possible for anyone to teach him a new trick by writing software. Dr Horan says there was a gap in the market for a robot that could work with humans and they’re exploring the kinds of tasks they can assign him.

Baxter’s low inertia, plastic and foam covered exterior and smiling face make him a gentle ally, but is he a threat to the workforce? Dr Horan is quick to point out that despite looking like a replacement for human factory workers, Baxter simply shifts the responsibility. ‘We still need humans to manage the robots. And a robot can be in a situation where it might get crushed, but we don’t lose a life.’ Just don’t mention that near Baxter.

Rachael Oates, marketing and communications manager for Sage Automation, the Australian distributor of Baxter, says that the Haigh’s Chocolate manufacturing facility in Australia was the first to apply Baxter’s skills to the production line.

'We still need humans to manage the robots. And a robot can be in a situation where it might get crushed, but we don’t lose a life.'

Dr Ben Horan,
Deakin University

At $35,000, Baxter costs about the same amount as a minimum wage factory worker and doesn’t demand sick days, holiday pay, breaks or better conditions. However, he represents a shift in the way that humans might work in the future. Rather than being bogged down with repetitive tasks, humans are free to spend more time planning and evolving their businesses.

Mortimer suggests that although movies like Chappie and Ex-Machina create a sense that the capacity for the human-robot relationship is not outside the realm of possibility, their ability to be our friends in a cognitive sense may never come to fruition. ‘It’s one thing to make a robot do something, it’s another thing to instil cognitive behaviour and human emotion in it,’ he says and explains that in the artificial intelligence space what really gives robots their edge is their memory and their ability to search for answers faster than humans do. He says the Hollywood take on artificial intelligence creates an illusion.

‘Robots and products with the capacity for artificial intelligence aren’t really as sophisticated as one might be led to believe. In many instances searching a database looking for an answer can surpass current capabilities of onboard artificial intelligence,’ Mortimer adds.

While robots don’t have the capacity to feel a two-way empathetic relationship, that doesn’t mean we can’t feel empathy for them. When Google-owned robotics firm Boston Dynamics posted a YouTube video of their robotic dog, Spot, being kicked, there was outcry. You can’t kick a dog, even if it is a robot, people said. Although the seemingly aggressive act was used to destabilise the dog only to highlight his ability to find his feet again, it raised a wider ethical technology dilemma – do we need to respect things that can’t respect us back?

Whether we’ve taken the time to think about it or not, the fact that people gasp or cringe when this little robotic animal stumbles is a sign that we already have an unspoken respect for technology that makes our lives easier.

At the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) robotics challenge in June 2015, robots created by tech companies competed to shut down a mock nuclear reactor in Pomona, California. Novelty aside, the crowd was audibly moved by the robots’ falls and triumphs along the way. The challenge organiser, Gill Pratt, said in a statement, ‘We heard groans of sympathy when those robots fell. And what did people do every time a robot scored a point? They cheered. It’s an extraordinary thing.’

Dr Horan concurs, adding; ‘It’s not good for us as a society if we start disrespecting the technologies that we rely on.’

The ethical code of conduct towards robots might not exist yet, but there’s every chance that we’ll come to give robots the same kind of quiet love we give our iPhones and our computers in return for their thankless commitment to making our days easier.

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Dr Ben Horan
Dr Ben Horan

Course Director – Bachelor of Mechatronics Engineering, School of Engineering, Deakin University
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