How far will we go with robots?

Sensemaking / How far will we go with robots?

Robots will clearly play a much bigger role in our lives in 20 years’ time, says Peter Madden, CEO at Forum for the Future. But just how close to them will we get? Is the idea of loving a robot all that far-fetched…?

02 Apr 2012

Robots will clearly play a much bigger role in our lives in 20 years’ time, says Peter Madden, CEO at Forum for the Future. But just how close to them will we get? Is the idea of loving a robot all that far-fetched…?

Robots always loom large in science fiction stories, and it is clear that they will be playing a much larger part in our lives in 20 years.

We’re likely to see swarms of self-directing machines, which mimic the behaviour of birds, fish and insects, used for practical tasks like constructing buildings, cleaning up pollution, or artificial pollination.

‘Immersive’ robots – ones that people inhabit with their minds – will allow us to be telepresent almost anywhere in the world, guiding our alias. A CEO could inspect a remote factory without having to take a long-haul flight, or a surgeon could perform a complex medical procedure without leaving home.

Origami robots (with a nod to Transformers) will fold themselves into various shapes, morphing to fulfil different functions. Maybe we won’t have to buy so much new kit: we’ll just re-programme the constituent parts into something else.

Our houses will probably have become robots that we live in, without us noticing. They’ll read our moods, pick up on behavioural cues and react accordingly. If we are stressed, they’ll pop on some soothing music and dim the lights. They’ll learn our habits and be able to predict them. They may even nudge us into healthier or greener behaviours.

Robot with love heartAnd it is this emotional interface with machines where I think we’ll see some of the biggest advances. Expect our machines to look sad if we get things wrong and happy when we get them right, Tamagotchi-style. And it won’t just be school kids that care about them. Some scientists (David Levy, for one) anticipate sex and marriage with robot companions. Personally, I find the likelihood that we will end up actually loving robots – choosing a malleable machine relationship over the rich complexities of a human one – profoundly dispiriting.

We can already see seeds of this future today. Robot pets are becoming ever more sophisticated. Robotic pollinators are being trialled in case the decline of the bee population continues. Driverless cars are on our roads and can be licensed in Nevada. And online, pre-programmed personas known as chatbots and weavrs are making friends on social media and blogging about their experiences, using public data to orient themselves.

Add to this ever cheaper computing, the increasing ability to join up different technological applications, and the fact that the military are investing so heavily in robotics, and we’re on a fast track to artificial intelligence. I don’t think we’ll see the point when robotic minds race past our own, and they come to rule over us (unless of course we elect them to do so…). But I do think that machines will be able to perform certain functions in certain ways, surpassing individual human capabilities.

What are the sustainability implications of all this? Robots could certainly help us run the planet more efficiently – maybe whether we like it or not. They might help to plant trees, restore biodiversity, and clean up oil spills. They could respond quickly and effectively to humanitarian disasters. And they could develop creative solutions to our electronic cast-offs – like the cute waste-collecting robot in the Pixar animation, WALL-E.

But they’ll certainly raise serious ethical questions. Surveillance versus privacy? Jobs versus efficiency? Manipulation versus freedom of choice? Let’s hope these new members of society can bring out our cooperative instincts, not our divisive tendencies. - Peter Madden

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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