Are we already too late to save ourselves from our robot overlords? Software engineer and Bulgarian FameLab 2017 contestant Veselin Rusinov weighs in.
What tasks are robots already doing?
Robots are all around us. From automatic sliding doors to SMS text messages, we come across robotics every single day. Some jobs that used to be performed solely by humans are now being filled by robots. In Japan, the Henn na Hotel has robots that help with the check-in process, provide concierge services, and even bring luggage to guests' rooms.
Amazon is also experimenting with robotic technology in its new Amazon Go shops. These are checkout-free stores where shoppers walk in, choose items to buy, then simply leave the store with their purchases. Sensors and computers figure out what they bought, and they are charged the cost of their purchases via their Amazon account. No human interaction or queues are necessary.
What tasks will robots perform in the future?
As technology advances, I expect robots to be doing almost everything. I'm eager to see how robotics will affect the medical community, especially in terms of carrying out medical tests and treatments. I imagine that all shops will follow the Amazon Go model, which would make shopping less of a chore.
I would like to see a real-time human speech translator, so I could fluently speak with another person no matter where we are in the universe. Imagine being able to say something in your language, and have the other person understand it perfectly.
According to a 2013 study, nearly half of jobs in the US are at risk of becoming fully automated. If you want to see whether or not your role could be replaced by a robot, check out the website 'Will Robots Take My Job?'.
Is humankind in any danger from robots?
Yes and no. Businessman and inventor Elon Musk speaks a lot about how we should create regulations for artificial intelligence, or 'AI'. However, Musk is not talking about the type of AI used by companies like Google, Twitter and Uber. He is talking about general artificial intelligence, which is more like what we are used to seeing in the movies – the kind that makes decisions which could directly affect our lives. Musk argues that we need to be proactive now, because we may reach a point where AI could become too advanced to be regulated.
I think Musk's regulations may involve a more developed version of Isaac Asimov’s 'Three Laws of Robotics', introduced in the science fiction story Runaround:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
While these rules must be considered, I think we need to be more concerned with machine learning algorithms that could be used to hide unethical human activities. Currently, machine learning algorithms are used in various ways online, for example, on social media to target advertisements to users with specific interests. These algorithms could be altered to collect personal banking details and other private information, which would be unsafe in the wrong hands.
Are robots engineered to have emotions?
No, not at the moment. Even as humans, it can be difficult to distinguish between each emotion, and know how to react in different situations. It would be even more difficult to design a model that represents such behaviour and programme it into a machine. Perhaps someday we will be able to create robots that can handle emotions.
What's more, we might still be too attached to human interactions to let all aspects of our lives be controlled by robots. When human elevator operators were initially replaced with automatic pings, people were uncomfortable with riding to different floors in silence. The human interaction between elevator passengers and operators was lost. In response, many elevator companies incorporated an automatic voice to announce each floor and add a slightly human element to the trip.
Is there any crossover between how robots are portrayed in the movies versus how they work in reality?
The amount of crossover between fantasy and reality definitely depends on the movie.
If we are talking about films like Terminator, Transformers or I, Robot where robots can make situational decisions and also move like humans – I would say that robots today are very different.
If we are talking about films like Wall-E, The Iron Giant or Big Hero 6 where the focus is on robots helping humans – I agree that there is some crossover between the fictional characters and real machines. I like to believe that the robots will help us and make our lives better, instead of making us their slaves or wiping out the human race.
I currently teach robotics to children, and they always want to make their robots fight each other. I try to show them that robots can also have a positive impact in our lives, like helping us move heavy things, dig ditches and mines, or diagnose illnesses and injuries.
You can watch Veselin and other talented science communicators present their research in our live-stream of the Hall of FameLab on 29 September 2017, part of Science Uncovered.