Welcome to the Robot Remix Bulletin, where we share a summary of the week's need-to-know robotics and automation news.
In today's email -
- Why humanoid robots evoke fear
- The British Army and the Robot Dog Olympics
- Tiny walking robots
- Robot sales up 40%
- The emotional connection between humans & robots
The Big Idea
Why are we scared of humanoid robots?
A week ago, we posted about the evolution of bipedal robots and boy did people have a lot to say. Many were excited by the developments but even more, were critical and frightened. Why was there such a strong reaction to humanoid robots?
Broadly three fears kept popping up - fear of replacement, death and the creepy.
1 - The fear of being replaced by robots
Since the Luddites smashed their looms in the 1800s, people have been frightened that technology would make them redundant. The trend has continued, with many fearing the exponential nature of computing will lead to unprecedented rates of unemployment and unrest. From PWC -
This fear applies to all technologies but there is something much more visceral about being replaced by a robot that looks and moves like you.
How to address this fear?
Although technological revolutions have brought disruption - the result has always been an increase in net employment.
The cliché goes that no one complains about all the lift operator jobs destroyed in the 1900s because we have a whole host of new jobs - robot engineers, PLC programmers, machine vision specialists, etc.
Our experience at Remix Robotics fits this - when clients come to us for automation, they are generally growing rapidly and want to invest in their future. They're buying robots because they can't keep up with demand and suffer from labour shortages. They don't want to replace workers, they want to apply them somewhere else. In the end, automation allows companies to do more with less, which should benefit society. PWC predicts that AI could boost global GDP by $15tn over the next eight years.
Even if automation leads to a net increase in jobs, certain jobs will be destroyed in the process. The fear of walking robots is a proxy for this fear. The only way to reduce this fear is to provide assurances that society will manage this transition responsibly. As an industry, we need to continue the discussion and push our governments to find solutions, whether it's Universal Basic Income, an effective retraining programme or something else.
2 - The fear of being killed by robots
When some people see robots walking around, their first thought is, "what if they had a gun strapped to them?". Understandably this is a scary thought but it's not an unreasonable fear. Governments around the world are investing heavily in military robots (see snippets below). The UK has said that robot soldiers could make up a quarter of the British army by 2030, and of course, drones are now essential to military strategy. There are strong arguments on both sides regarding the ethics of militarised robots but the public's concerns are warranted.
This fear likely has a lot to do with how humanoid robots are portrayed in movies, think Terminator, Skynet, and West World. Sentient walking robots should be low on our list of worries but many are taking the fear of superintelligent AI seriously. Again, walking robots are a stand-in for the fear of something hard to visualise.
How to address this fear?
These fears are harder to address. We need continued discussions on the regulation of autonomous weapons and as engineers, we should develop our own ethical framework to determine where we focus.
Regarding superintelligence, anyone working in AI should educate themselves on AI alignment and safety. We recommend starting with the Effective Altruism curriculum created by open AI researcher Richard Ngo.
3- Finding humanoid robots creepy
As discussed, many of the fears of humanoid robots stem from a fear of something intangible. Why do we focus this fear on walking robots? Driving all of this is an 'ick' factor known as the Uncanny Valley.
The concept suggests that humanoid objects that imperfectly resemble actual human beings provoke uncanny or strangely familiar feelings of uneasiness and revulsion in observers. One theory suggests that it's because they trip "the same psychological alarms associated with a dead or unhealthy human.”
How to address this fear?
Robots that do not look like people do not elicit as strong an emotional response. It is worth considering when humanoid robots are the correct form for a specific solution.
If humanoid robots are required their level of fidelity needs to improve significantly. As roboticists, we can't just focus on the technical but must start considering the psychological responses elicited by the products we design. To learn more about this, the Lex Fridman podcast (below) with Kate Darling is a great place to start.
The world's smallest walking robot - Scientists have created a walking robot less than 0.5mm wide. Its made from shape memory alloys and can be propelled by selectively heating its body parts with a laser
Robot dog Olympics - Keen to discover the military applications of robot dogs, the British Army held an event for a select group of coders to showcase the capabilities of Boston Dynamics' Spot. The Army are no strangers to robots. They currently utilise humanoid robot soldiers to train paratroopers for combat by firing BB gun-style pellets at troops.
Robots deployed as a solution for labour shortages - US robot sales have increased 40% in Q1 of 2022 due to precipitous labour shortages and this trend is appearing across the world. The city-state of Singapore has embraced robotics with 605 robots installed per 10,000 employees - second only to South Korea who have 932 robots per 10,000 employees.
Farming vegetables inside a skyscraper - Hong Kong has little room for farming in the traditional manner. Cue Farm 66 - a company tackling Hong Kong's food security issues with vertical farms and robots.
Robot companions for the elderly - The state of New York is distributing 800 robots to older citizens who might be suffering from loneliness. To combat the loneliness epidemic exacerbated by Covid-19 isolation, these robots will engage users in small talk, help contact loved ones and keep track of important health goals.
The emotional connection between humans and robots
A really interesting podcast on the ethics of robotics. Highlights include -
- Does it matter if we treat robots badly?
Yes, but only because it might encourage us to act with less empathy in other areas of our life.
- Is the trolley problem useful in ethics?
Yes, but only because it shows us there are no easy one-size-fits-all ‘right’ answers to the problem.
- What happens if we anthropomorphize robots?
It might help us work better with robots but it could also allow companies to take advantage of us and cause us to make bad decisions. The story about US soldiers who treated their bomb disposal robot as a pet and subsequently risked their lives to save it is telling.
GIF of the week
Two approaches to dealing with new technologies.