In our latest ESRC-sponsored Ask The Expert seminar, Dr Sabine Hauert, assistant professor in robotics at the University of Bristol and co-founder of the robotics platform robohub.org, discussed the potential benefits robotics and artificial intelligence yield for people, and the need to ‘dehype’ the debate surrounding technology.
The majority of the population tend to think of robots primarily as humanoids which threaten employment. However, there is little knowledge of the wide variety of non-humanoid robots which could impact, and complement, human activity in the future.
As Dr Hauert highlighted, only 9% of UK residents had heard of the term ‘machine learning’, but many were aware of its most common uses: 76% knew about a smartphone’s ability to ‘talk back’ to its owner and 75% had heard of the existence of driverless cars.
Three in four people relied on the mainstream media to inform them about advancements in the field, whereas 21% said they learned of various technology from entertainment outlets, such as science fiction television programmes and movies.
However, the most popular (by number of sales in the past year) robots were built only to complete a small set of tasks, such as domestic robots and drones, rather than metal people.
Dr Hauert argued that robotics will have an increasing role in human lives in the near future, be it as bionic limbs, co-bots (collaborative robots, which work close with humans and can be used in the assembly line), space ships controlled from distance, or assisting the elderly with daily tasks.
The benefits which arise with the use of robotics can be widespread, however the discussion around technology needs to be ‘dehyped’ and realistic instead of anecdotal and speculation-heavy.
Instead, the conversation should be based on what workers value about their job, what can be done to assist them with their daily tasks and enhance their productivity, in a cautious and ethical way.
Giving people access to technology is the first step of empowerment, however a skills pipeline at all levels would be needed to take advantage of robotics and AI. Dr Hauert called an increased focus on technology literacy across the population to promote a better understanding of what robots can and cannot do.
Metal for People
Dr Hauert’s research identifies a number of potential uses for robotics, and machine learning in particular, which attract public attention.
- Healthcare – such as improved tools for doctors to diagnose and treat patients.
- Elder care – in the context of assisting the elderly with their daily tasks rather than replacing human carers with robots.
- Education – to support teachers with tracking the progression of students across academic aims.
- Climate – such as advancements in clean energy.
- Personalisation – in the context of making sense of data and receiving personalised recommendations of services such as video streaming.
On the other hand, some areas draw more worries than optimism.
- Not understanding or partially understanding technology tends to lead to a lack of trust of its applications.
- An increasing reliance on robotics also sees a rise in the fear of being replaced not just at the work place, but within social interactions too.
- Some worry that algorithms might limit human experience such as seeing a news feed from a selection of tailored sources.
In her concluding remarks, Dr Hauert encouraged ‘not to have metal people, but metal for people’ and have a meaningful hype-free debate of the tools we will need for the future.
One thing policy-makers and opinion-formers should take from Dr Hauert’s work: Robotics and AI have the potential to improve the way people work and live, therefore it is key to improve the surrounding debate in order for all to benefit. One common mistake in popular debate Dr Hauert would like to correct: Robots are task-specific and should be thought of as helpers, not replacements.