Ideasroom

Not time to worry about robots - yet

Should we worry about robots taking over? Not anytime soon, says the University of Auckland's Dr Craig Sutherland

The robot revolution is here – run for the hills!

Or is it? We’ve made great strides in technology: we have Alexi, Bixby and Siri to help. Yet for every success, many more have fallen by the wayside. Jibo, Cosmo and Kuri – all social robots that would change our lives – have come and gone with barely a trace. Why? Perhaps the answer lies not with our robots, but with us.

When I first started working with robots, I would take them around and show them to children and their parents. At that time, one question I was often asked was “could it do the vacuuming?” Cue visions of Rosie from The Jetsons zipping around the house and doing all our chores for us.

But alas, it is not to be. While robots have revolutionised manufacturing and industry, they’ve barely made it through our front doors. Although, somewhat ironically, the most successful domestic robot is the Roomba, a robotic vacuum cleaner.

Today, most robots are specialists: they perform one task and they perform it well. Roomba will happily move around the house sucking up any dust or dirt it finds. There are robots that mop our floors, cut our lawns, clean our pools and even cook our food. While these robots can do some amazing things, they can only do that one thing.

In contrast, a human can perform an almost limitless variety of tasks. We can do all the tasks that these specialist robots can do and more. An example, if we were vacuuming the house and found the front door open, we’d probably close it. The Roomba will just ignore it.

And this is why social robots fail. By definition, a social robot is, well, social. We’re expecting it to act in similar ways to us. Like closing the door. It is the small things that we do that make us social, yet they make a huge difference.

For example, take gaze. When we talk, we tend to look at the other person. Try not looking at a person in a conversation and see how they react. At MIT Media Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), they programmed two robots to interact with children. Most interactions were the same, but one was programmed to look at the children and the other wasn’t. The result: the children preferred the looking robot and spent more time with it.

With robots, we seem to have an initial fascination with them. They are different and unusual, so we want to know more about them. But once we are over this initial interest, their value wanes. Unlike people, they don’t change in response to us, they just do the same things over and over. And without the little social graces that lubricate our relationships, we grow bored with them.

So, should we worry about robots taking over? Not anytime soon. Our current robots are specialists, designed to do a single task and only that task. And until a robot can act in a social way, it will just be a plaything, here today, gone tomorrow.

Sorry Rosie, your time has not yet come.

Craig Sutherland will be talking about the impact of robots from health care to education, and where they have failed to make a difference, at Raising the Bar, a University of Auckland event which swaps lecture theatres and computer labs for city bars and pubs for one night only, August 29.

Dr Sutherland will be speaking at Everybody's Bar and Restaurant, 7 Fort Lane, Auckland at 6.30pm. Tickets are free.

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