Robots are Taking Over the World

For decades robotics has been quietly advancing and making its way to driving the major shift we will experience in the coming decade – seeing humanoid robots in everyday society.  This is the stuff of science fiction movies and most people don’t realize how close we are to this major paradigm shift.

We as a society are facing some major challenges in the coming decades.  One in particular is being targeted by robot developers as commercially within reach. There are not enough younger adults to take care of the older adults.  Older adults are often left alone and worse, abused.  With the pending explosion of Alzheimer’s cases as the boomer population ages, there is an unquestionable need to find ways to help safely, efficiently and compassionately provide care for older adults.  It is difficult to imagine a world without such solutions.

There is a recent NY Times opinion piece on this topic with references to a couple of YouTube videos:

  • CosmoBot which shows this therapeutic robot helping to engage children in play as part of their therapy. Viewing this it is easy to see the tremendous value in robots to mankind.
  • PARO is another therapeutic robot, a baby Harp Seal, used to comfort older adults. The positive emotional impact is irrefutable.

But what about humanoid robots – do these really exist?  How close are we to having real robotic companions for people – humanoid or in other forms?

  • These male and female Actoid robots show how human like in appearance robots have become, not just imitating looks, but gestures and facial expressions.
  • Even closer to real humans are the robots produced by Hanson Robotics in Texas. You can easily begin to imagine constant companions for older adults among other roles in society.

What’s the downside to advancing humanoid robotics some will ask and for good reason.  People have a history of exploiting technology to advance the needs of a few over the needs of many or of course to increase their arsenal of weapons.   Joseph Weizenbaum was a German computer scientist who recognized the potential risks with humanoid robots and artificial intelligence.  He was profiled in a quiet little 2010 documentary called Plug & Pray which highlighted some of the potential risks to humanity that emerge as we create machines that can interact with, help, but also potentially kill people, intentionally or not.  The coming paradigm shift as humanoid robots enter society will create opportunities and solve problems unable to be solved previously, however, new problems will be created and right now it is unclear how we will solve those.  For instance, what if a robot malfunctions and hurts or kills someone – who is to blame?  Who pays for the loss?  Who ensures this is unlikely to happen in the first place and how is that enforced on a global level?  We have many years to figure out the answers to these questions, but we will need to have answers at some not so distant point in the future.  There is a pre-cursor to this scenario in the emergence of drones.  Once drone technology became available, people immediately tried to use it for all kinds of things.  Problems also immediately arose as the potential danger to existing aircraft was realized and flight norms were immediately threatened.    We do not have global solutions and have just begun to assimilate drones into our legal system.  Humanoid robots will present similar challenges.

Humanoid robots need not be smarter than humans to be helpful, but it is believed that we are not far from that date either, termed The Singularity.  There are a more complex set of issues that relate to the world of artificial intelligence as a whole, regardless of the form it takes.

The signs of the major shift are upon us:

  • Softbank in June 2014 announced a robot called Pepper with human movements and the ability to perceive and react to human emotions will be sold to the public in early 2015 for $2000. This is the first significant commercial step towards the humanoid robotic companion.
  • HitchBOT was sent in July 2014 to hitchhike across Canada alone to collect stories about how people interact with robots.
  • Google recently pulled out of the DARPA robotic competition to focus on commercial development. They are developing a humanoid robot among other activities and doing it in a big, google way.

There are many things to watch in the coming months and years regarding robots – how they look, how smart are they, what they can do, who owns them, who controls them and how are they viewed by legal systems and governments.  It is sure to be an increasingly fascinating topic.  The commercial industry while in its infancy will no doubt explode in coming years.   The under $2000 price tag for Pepper is much less than what one would expect for such a sophisticated machine.  If this is indicative of the future pace of this industry, robots may be in homes as quickly as personal computers and video game consoles.

If you have a 37 minutes to immerse yourself, this video surveys nicely the current state of the robot world.  Wow.

If you want a fun peek into the future of senior robotic partnerships, check out the 2012 feature film Robot & Frank.  You can stream it free on Amazon Prime.  Now I want a robot, too.