Realising A Robot Reality

D/SRUPTION talks with the robotics experts. . .

You don’t have to look too far back to find a time where the idea of living alongside advanced, intelligent robots was little more than a fantasy. But in today’s automated world, businesses and consumers have little choice but to accept that this will be, and perhaps already is, the case. It’s very difficult to name an industry that hasn’t been affected by advanced robots in some way, and now consumers are integrating smart machines into their homes. Combined with artificial intelligence, the clever bots we already encounter today will only get smarter. So, what does a robot reality look like? D/SRUPTION spoke to Starship Technologies, Blue Ocean Robotics and robotics expert Dr. Shuhei Miyashita to find out.

From corporations to consumers
So far, numerous industries have adopted robotics technology and have done for years. But in which industry does the field have the most potential?

Dr. Shuhei Miyashita, who has worked on nanorobotics and AI projects at both MIT and Carnegie Melon University, believes it to be healthcare. Claus Risager, CEO of Blue Ocean Robotics, has also worked on life changing projects for hospitals and care homes including a UV disinfection robot and a robotic seal pup. At one point, 25 per cent of all care homes in Denmark were using the responsive robotic seal to ease the symptoms of dementia. But while healthcare seems to be an obvious contender, Henry Harris-Burland, Vice President of Marketing at Starship Technologies, begs to differ. Instead, Starship sees the most transformative changes happening within logistics.

In the past, robots were largely confined to the realm of B2B. However, there is an ongoing shift towards the consumer market, in the homes, cars, and personal devices of everyday people. According to Henry, this has been one of the most important developments in recent years.

“The introduction of the self-driving car and other autonomous vehicles, including local delivery robots and drones has opened up a wealth of opportunity. The key difference between this technology and others in the past is the fact it is designed to integrate into our lives. We’re talking about robotics we would see on a daily basis on our commute to work.”

Working with robots
With advanced robotics comes automation. But, in light of the benefits of adopting technology, more corporations are beginning to change their attitudes towards innovation.

“There has been a shift in attitudes to do or die for legacy companies to embrace tech. If they don’t, they will not survive – it is simple. It has changed from a ‘want’ to a ‘need’,” says Henry.

According to robotics veteran Claus, embracing technology creates jobs. In fact, he says that there are currently more global jobs and work hours per day than ever before.

“The overall global trend is that when you implement new technology, over time you actually create more jobs. In a logical way you would probably think the opposite, but when you become more productive you create value which over time is spread out in society.”

So, will people be comfortable working and living alongside these machines?

Starship Technologies definitely thinks so.

“Our robots have driven tens of thousands of miles now around the world and come into contact with millions of people. Surprisingly, most people don’t pay attention to the robot. It’s a part of daily life already.” Claus agrees, stating that robots only become scary when we talk about them in an abstract way.

But what about when these robots look and speak just like us?

Will we be able to interact with them on a human level, or will developers stay away from the slightly unsettling realism of Nanyang Technological University’s Nadine?

“If robots can tap into the way we naturally interact, they have a clear advantage,” says Claus. “Researchers in Asia have been doing excellent work studying how interactions occur more naturally if robots exploit human interaction mechanisms like smiling. But do I think they should look like humans? No, I don’t.”

Speaking in terms of Japanese society, Shuhei states that humanoid robots are a longstanding goal.

“In my view, Asia, the US and Europe have evolved independently. In the US, Alexa has done well. In Europe, it really depends. Some people are keen on human aspects of a robot, and more communicative and social qualities.”

Defining ‘intelligence’
Regardless of what they look like, robots are getting smarter. Thanks to shared neural networks and collaborative software, bots are gradually learning to learn. Instead of undergoing extensive testing, says Claus, robot’s cognitive development will be built in as part of daily interactions. Eventually different models will be able to share and collate this knowledge.

“If a robot wants to engage you more into a dialogue, it will have a range of things it can do in different situations. It will then measure what happens and learn what behaviours get faster to the point. We already have sophisticated systems today that I would call intelligent, but we are on a journey. The degree of intelligence is a moving target.”

It’s clear that using intelligent robots will be a much cheaper and more efficient way to run numerous businesses. This, however, throws up concerns about automation and wealth distribution. This is something that Claus feels should be discussed as robotics moves forward.

“We really want to push forward the use of tech to the widest possible extent to create more wealth and value. If you keep this within two per cent of the population, you get problems. How do you create a mechanism to distribute this wealth? There is something to be discussed here.”

What is also worth discussing is how we treat robots themselves. The ethics of robotics is a shady subject that, as humans become more familiar with machines, needs to be addressed.
“It’s challenging,” says Shuhei, “In the field of AI, it’s just maths. From maths, can one really create values? Working out how AI is progressing and if intelligent robots can be treated like humans will really make a difference.”

So, the robots are coming, and some would argue that they are already here. But, as Shuhei reminds us, developers do not always meet their ambitious benchmarks.

“In Japan, people would preach that humanoid robots would be in your house by 2015, which we passed already, and we haven’t seen. Many people have asked why – what is missing? What is the challenge that we didn’t address?”

Finding the answers to these kinds of questions will continue to shape the development of advanced intelligent robots. What’s clear is that the field is closer than ever to the consumer market. If a robot reality is really upon us, it’s up to us all to decide if this efficient but morally perplexing world is one they want to live in.