So far, robots have pretty much looked like machines. Perhaps this is why they have not garnered much attention, or inspired the fears that so much of science fiction, from Asimov to the Wachowskis, centres upon.
This is about to change. Many of the best of the new generation of bots are assuming humanoid form. HitchBOT, a talking, tweeting hitchhiker robot, recently made it from one coast of Canada to the other – having hitched rides with strangers, and talking to drivers using speech-recognition software. It even had some pretty human adventures on the way, having fished, camped, and attended a wedding.
Then there’s Botlr, a robotic bellhop being tested by Starwood Hotels to deliver luggage, toothpaste, razors and other conveniences to guests. Another humanoid is being built in a robotic lab in the United Arab Emirates to teach basic addition and subtraction to children in school.
Whether robots go mainstream in 2015 or 2025, here are a few tips to prepare.
Figure out your role in the robot-assisted economy
Last year Google announced that it wanted to build an army of robots to take over assembly line and delivery jobs in manufacturing and retail. For decades, labour has been at loggerheads with automation, but as machines become more capable, the economic elite is now concerned that robots will replace humans in white-collar jobs too.
A 2013 paper out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Centro de Estudios Monetarios y Financerios in Spain came up with a list of jobs that could be most easily replaced by machines. The list included proof-readers, meter readers, butchers, secretaries, stenographers, bank tellers, cashiers, barbers and typists. It is those with specialised or crucial abilities – athletes and sports officials, foresters and conservation scientists, firefighters, railway locomotive operators, kindergarten and primary school teachers, surveyors, cartographers, actors, directors and producers – who have the least to fear when it comes to being replaced by robots.
Technology experts questioned in a recent Pew Research Center study were split on the impact of robots on the economy. Half the group – close to 48% – worried that displacement of humans by automation is already taking place and will only get worse. The other 52% felt that better technology would create more jobs than it will replace. Some argued that mainstream robots were decades away, while others said laws and regulation would control robot evolution.
Adapt to working with robots and even taking orders from them
The robot in your office could be your boss. MIT researchers studied human-robot interactions at work and concluded that in a group where tasks might be assigned manually or by robot, human subjects felt the team was more efficient when a robot gave the orders. It may seem counterintuitive, but the study suggests that a robot can more efficiently run its algorithms to solve a problem than a human can by her intelligence and instinct.
If your boss is human he might be linked to you at all times through a telepresence robot. A telepresence robot is basically a tablet mounted on a rolling platform and controlled by a remote user. If the user is your boss, slacking off time could be severely curtailed.
They’ll be in your home too
Two years ago Korean consumer electronics giant LG introduced the Hom Bot in India. It is a disc-shaped remote-controlled vacuum cleaner on wheels that remembers the areas it has cleaned before and returns to its docking station on its own to recharge when its battery runs low. Roboticists today are programming humanoids to clean, cook, fetch, and even iron and fold clothes. An Indian couple in Singapore recently built a chapati-making robot. Researchers are also working on making robots understand the natural language of humans – how we speak everyday and what our body language conveys.
The latest breakthrough in roboticis a system that helps your robot help you at home. The Robo Brain, developed by Cornell computer scientists, is like Google for robots. Robots that have been given an instruction can tap into the Robo Brain database to understand what the man or woman who issued the instruction meant. The Robo Brain downloads hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos and millions of how-to manuals and appliance guides from openly available Internet sources. Robots can use the brain to learn how to find keys, pour a drink, or not interrupt a conversation.
Get used to never breaking a rule again
A robotic car, whether by Google or anyone else, will follow traffic rules. It will not jump a red light or honk in a silent zone. In a paper on human-robot interaction, Heather Knight of Carnegie Mellon University asks whether such law-abiding behaviour will put off human passengers.
“Would passengers be upset if their cars insisted on following the posted speed limits instead of driving at the prevailing speed of traffic?” she writes. “If we are sharing the road, would we want them to be servile, always giving right of way to human drivers?”
Learn your robot rules
In 2006, the European Robotics Research Network came up with a set of ethical guidelines governing robots. These broad principles were laid out to ensure the safety, security and privacy of humans. Japan and South Korea drafted their own robot laws in 2007. When robots go mainstream most countries are likely to draw up their own robot rules.
Don’t hurt a robot just because you can
Whether robot law in your country allows it or not, don’t hurt a robot. Heather Knight points out in her paper that there may be no moral downside to hurting an inanimate robot but it reflects poorly on anyone inflicting damage on it. “This is not dissimilar from discouraging young children from hurting ants,” she writes.