The impact of advanced robotic engineering (part 1)

“The truck regarded them calmly, its receptors blank and impassive. It was doing its job. The planet-wide network of automatic factories was smoothly performing the task imposed on it five years before, in the early days of the Total Global Conflict.” Written by famous and farsighted Phillip K. Dick in 1955, his central characters, three human survivors of the War, fight these factories and finally succeed in regaining control by eventually turning them against each other and thus making them destroying themselves. Or so, it seems.

Above scenario describes a world in which humans constantly struggle to outsmart machines that are as smart as mice. Is this merely science fiction? Nowadays, 60 years later, machines of all kinds are omnipresent and humans do their utmost to make them smarter every day. They already crawl, jump on one leg, climb stairs, carry heavy load, fly, spy out, speak and even are close to display human deception. They come from desktop size to ultra-large, take all kinds of shape from a flashing something, to a crawling gecko, running pack-dog or a smiling human.

While only very few things are bound to happen at a certain timing in a predictable manner, preventing this “robolution” is no longer an option. Thus, it is crucial to harness the multi-facetted potentials advanced robotic engineering. These potentials do not only concern the technical challenges and risks. Instead, more focus should be directed to questions like how much robots will reach out in the human sphere. Informing and thus increasing the awareness of the broader public about the many manifestations of robots and the impact of advanced robotic engineering is paramount. We need to ensure not be overrun by the astounding speed of technological progress. We need to ensure that the population at large who are consumers and not researchers, developers, producers or salesmen can be confident that robots are for the better of humanity and not the worse. Thus, information diffused in a manner understandable also for laymen in terms of technological, medical, military, legal knowledge or ethical or religious beliefs is key because laymen can and must contribute to this debate.

Jobs: Traditional Industries and Digital Economy

Today’s world is no longer to be thought of without them. When first entering large-scale industry to reduce heavy manual, repetitive or dangerous work, a “real robot“ cost a fortune and weighed tons. Quite often workers even needed to be physically protected from them! This is a thing of the past. Nowadays, coming at a unit price as low as $22.000, light-weighted, two-armed humanoids like ‘rethink robotics’ company’s “BAXTER” are about to find their way into small and medium-sized enterprises. Here, they work hand in glove with a team of humans. Or rather replace it. This overall trend seems irreversible. Taiwanese electronics-manufacturing giant Foxconn announced to gradually install over one million robots to replace the same number of employees. While this has made it into the news headlines, the impact of the faintly looming wide spread introduction of driverless vehicles such as cars, trucks and busses on the job market goes almost uncommented, at least from this perspective. The same is true for machines making their way in the white-collar sector. Electronic accounting, self check-in kiosks and an unimaginable number of online purchase services have pushed people out of their jobs. But this large-scale job reduction is only one side of the medal. Numerous jobs have become safer in traditional industries, and many jobs have been new created in the digital economy, though the vast majority of them require higher skills. To which side the pendulum will finally swing and how the balance sheet will look like, remains to be seen. Evidently, providing adequate training and education will be key. So, are the current education systems sufficiently geared for teaching the skills demanded by this technical revolution? Could we perhaps employ artificial tutors?

Consumer Demography and Gender

Already today, many consumers dread reading booklet size manuals to get a TV up and running. A similar development, on a large scale, is lurking with robots. It is comfortable to live with robotic lawnmowers, vacuum and pool cleaners and certainly tempting to spend more time splashing and less time scrubbing! But how bringing a robot to “life”? How to make it operational after unwrapping the outer packing? In addition, other than a static TV, robots can really run. What if the robot breaks a leg and needs maintenance? Will the manual help or is this the time for specialists, perhaps even another robot? The statistics leave no doubt: consumers in many countries, particular those that will make use of robots are increasingly aging. The difference between those that are and will remain digital amateurs and those that have been socialized by playing computer games is still widening. So, will possession of a robot reflect the owner’s age or even gender? Because gender is another obvious gap that needs to be looked after. This is the goal of the ambitious Roberta program. Developed by the renowned German Fraunhofer Institute for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems, it aims at boosting and promoting an understanding of technology at school, apprenticeship and university level in a gender-appropriate manner. It is particular girls that shall be immersed in the fascinating world of mobile robots. And it is robots that are at the heart of the program. Acknowledging that girls approach MINT (Mathematics, Informatics, Natural Science and Technology) topics differently than boys, the focus is to ensure that girls too enjoy and successfully apply technology at school and beyond. Developing their long-term interest in MINT topics is essential to eventually start a successful career in a technical or scientific field later in their lives. In the meanwhile and with financial support from the European Union, Roberta now helps also girls in other European countries such as Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Sweden to bring their own robots to life.

Real and Simulated Life

We are living in a world where increasingly the border between real and simulated life will unravel. The extent to which people immerse themselves into games, use avatars to lead a more exiting virtual life with a healthy and good looking body indicates an increasingly open mindedness to move the boundaries. So, does it really matter for a child whether it is playing with a real dog or Sony’s legendary dog-like entertainment robot “Aibo”? In his 1940 published short story “Robbie”, Isaac Asimov makes it utterly clear that depriving young Gloria of her mute robot nursemaid Robbie is not a good idea. Returning Robbie to the factory and talking her daughter into playing with real children turns Gloria’s moods progressively worse. Reunion with her beloved companion is the ultimate goal at which she – having more pull than her parents – will finally succeed. Like cloning, the creation of humanoid robots touches upon the definition of humans. Sociologists argue that one of the strongest propensities of the human psyche is to belong to a group. Will we accept that robots become part of our group and thus human? Certainly, anthropomorphizing will facilitate such a process. Japanese Kokoro Company Ltd. “Actroid” models, available as female and male version, demonstrate that considerable progress has been made in the field of human-like external traits. It really takes a second look to see the difference, and hospital trials proved that real humans felt only little unease in their presence. Rather to the opposite!

Health Care and Life-Style

It seems that “Actroid’s” strong presence caused a positive psychological impact on patients. They and elderly people are one of the main target groups for therapeutic robots. Although not at all to be confounded with a human, it is hard to resist the charm of anthropomorphic “PaPeRo”. Attributed with some human forms, this cute knee-high partner-personal-robot plays games with us, roams around looking for our face and, upon finding us, starts a conversation. Presumably, in ageing societies with high labor cost such as Japan, the need for non-human assistance in the workplace and at home will rapidly grow. Thus it comes not as a surprise that Japan is at the forefront of humanoid robotic engineering. And it is neither a surprise that therapeutic robots such as “Paro”, designed by the Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, have already found their way also into European nursing homes. Here the cute baby seal pet, available in different colors, helps to comfort especially patients with Alzheimer and dementia. Another important development in the medical arena is the use of robotic body parts. Based on brain-inspired smart technology, already today stroke victims and amputees benefit from implantable neuro-technological devices that allow for the movement of prosthetic limbs. Unsurprisingly, there is also already a taste for using robotic body parts not just purely medically but as a life-style option to acquire supernormal senses or reflexes.

Ethics and Emotions

Dan Chen’s video performance “Last Moment Robot“ features a machine that gently speaks to and caresses a dying person without any other comforting company. This immediately addresses current ethics and moral standards. These are touched upon even more broadly in the case of aforementioned implantable machines penetrating the human body or, vice versa outsourcing human affections. What will be the emotional effects of such robots?  Humans, the saying goes, have Paleolithic emotions, mediaeval institutions and god-like technology. So, can a Paleolithic mind, on the same footing, cope with machines stemming from an entirely different era?

The Swedish SF drama “Real Humans” gives some insight into that: Featuring a Swedish society where highly sophisticated Human Support Robots not only work and serve but also act as real companions, lovers and spouses in the true legal sense. Clearly, not everybody is happy about that. Evidently, losing work because of a machine is one thing, however, losing a friend to a machine is a different matter altogether. Equally, when it comes to venting one’s anger, one needs to learn how to sensibly differentiate between sensitive real humans and patiently forgiving robots. And will these machines in the not-too-distant future when humans prefer robot partners to those with real flesh? Will our ability to emotionally act wither in the continuous presence of such robots? Obviously, the numerous advantages, such as never being disappointed, living out the most secret carnal desires, and sharing one’s most intimate thoughts face an equally high number of risks such as losing the ability to properly engage in societal life. In its latest season, the Swedish SF drama even addresses conquering the death. Switching on the clone of their late grandfather Lennert is nothing but his resurrection.

>> Go to Part 2

Birgit Hütten works in Brussels for an inter-governmental organization. Her fields of interest are those relations and factors whose alleged insignificance for the overall developments needs to be questioned with a recent emphasis on robotics and industry 4.0. She has a Magister Artium (University Bonn) degree in Japanology and Comparative Religion and a Master in European Administrative Management (University of the Applied Sciences Berlin) for which she presented defense related thesis.