The Future of Robots

Martin Smith, Professor of Robotics at Middlesex University and an expert in the field of cybernetics, discusses how robots will shape our society in the future.

What does the future hold for robot technology?

Robots are applied to dirty, dangerous or dull tasks, those undesirable or hard jobs that we would prefer not to do. While it is unlikely that in the future every undesirable task will be undertaken by a robot, there are certain areas where they are certain to make an impact.

The Impact of Robots on Policing and Defence

Policing is such an infinitely varied task that robots will not be up to the task for twenty to fifty years or more.

However, certain specific tasks such as approaching a terrorist who might be wearing a suicide vest is so hazardous that it would be a task better suited to a robot. Similarly searching and clearing a building with one or more gunmen inside, for whom suicide may be wanted, is extremely hazardous for policemen and soldiers.

Robots have been developed for these tasks and the evolution will continue.

The technology has advanced to such a stage that pilotless aircraft are now being used by over eighty countries

As for defence, many modern military aircraft are designed to be highly manoeuvrable while being almost invisible to radar. The resulting design compromises make the aircraft too unstable to fly by any human pilot. The planes are flown by computers, with the pilot instructing the computers. The technology has advanced to such a stage that pilotless aircraft, unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) or drones are now being used by over eighty countries. It has been reported that there are now more UAVs in the US Air Force than piloted planes.

Surgeons utilising a robot assistant

Surgeons utilising a robot assistant

Robots and Medical Surgery

There are a few surgical operations that require so many precisely made incisions that they are better suited to robots.

In cancer cases it is vital to remove all the cancer cells, but removal of adjacent healthy cells can impair the patient significantly. In some brain operations cancerous cells are located by an MRI scan and the locations are transmitted directly to the robot surgeon. Prostate surgery can also be done more successfully by robot in some cases because of the greater precision of the machine.

Robots cleaning your house

Robots cleaning your house

Robots and the Home

General purpose domestic robots are highly unlikely to appear in the next fifty years. This is because those tasks that we might want them for, such as ironing, making beds, climbing stairs, are all hard problems that would need expensive solutions. A robot that could do just one of these tasks would cost as much as a luxury car.

Robots that could do one or two very simple tasks such as monitor the health or provide company for the elderly or infirm are however very likely in the next ten to twenty years. Some basic companion robots already exist.

At the moment, nearly every household could have one or more single purpose robots such as floor cleaners and lawnmowers. However I cannot envisage a time in the next fifty years when nearly every household will have a general purpose robot because the cost of such a machine would be so much more than a human maid, au pair, nanny or carer.

They may look like us, but can robots ever think like us?

They may look like us, but can robots ever think like us?

Robots and Human Emotions

In the future, robots will have emotional intelligence, or to be more precise, robots will be able to show most, if not all, of the signs and behaviours of emotional intelligence.

The robots will not "feel", but like actors they will be able to show emotional intelligence. I would expect robots to develop levels of emotional intelligence that will be greater than most humans. Of the various aspects of emotional intelligence I would expect robots to be better than most humans at: thinking, judgement, problem solving, openness, self-control, self-analysis, and paying attention to and identifying people's feelings and emotions, for example.

However, robots wouldn't be accepted by most people as a replacement for a partner or child. Though some do accept surrogate partners, for example dolls and pets, for the vast majority of people a robot would fall so far short of a human that this would not be a possibility, even perhaps in a hundred years or more.

The cost of producing such a machine would be more than many companies could afford. The technology is probably more than fifty years away. But with advances in artificial hearts, lungs, eyes, ears skin and so on and the creation of part machine part human is possible technically. Such machines would be cyborgs or cybernetic organisms. Human beings with brain, heart, cochlea and other implants do exist already.

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The Danger of Robots to the Human Race

Everything that is useful has within it the potential to be abused. As such there are dangers inherent in robots; just as there are with motor cars, trains, ships and aeroplanes.

On balance all these technologies have proved to be good things. It will be so with robots.

It has been said that if robots become more intelligent than us, if we are lucky, they might keep us as pets. If we are unlucky they might treat us in the same way as we treat chickens, pigs and cows.

There is a potential risk that corrupt dictators will create armies of killer robots. Provided the democracies stay technically ahead, as with other potential military technology, there will be an overall benefit to humanity from robots. The bigger risk will be if the democracies allow the dictatorships to become technologically more advanced.

Everything that is useful has within it the potential to be abused

If problems arise potential ill effects can be curtailed as they arise on a case by case, trial and error basis. We must be careful not to stifle development as legislators did with the advent of the motor car when people were required to walk in front of the cars waving red flags.