The end of the world was yesterday

The robot: man’s best friend?

They work more efficiently, are quicker thinkers, and don’t take any breaks. But the ascent of robots need not be a threat: rather, it could be an opportunity for growth and prosperity. Swiss mathematician and robotics researcher Rolf Pfeifer explains.

Rolf Pfeifer
Lead photo
Vincent Fournier

As an expert in artificial intelligence and robotics, I continuously come across predictions about the future – at technology fairs or in the media. Typically, their novelty factor is relatively limited: people talk about increased computing power, better networking (the cloud, the “Internet of Things”), self-driving cars, more robots in our daily lives (service robotics), medical applications (support suits, health monitoring, surgery, personalized medicine), and assistive technologies for the elderly.

There is disagreement, however, on whether these developments entail a loss or an increase in the number of jobs. Insider opinions are divided: roughly 50% think there will be more jobs, the other 50% think the opposite, and the arguments of both sides are equally plausible. Once again, this is a beautiful illustration of the famous quote, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future,” often attributed to the eminent physicist and Nobel Prize-winner Niels Bohr.

Robots have already conquered a lot of territory

In fact, it’s not so much about the future – most of it is, at least partially, already in place. The robots have already conquered a lot of territory in our own living space: just look at robot receptionists and guides in shopping malls; vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers in homes; soft pet robots for children’s hospitals and homes for the elderly; machines that can churn out 400 hamburgers an hour and others that can bake a delicious pizza in three minutes according to a customer’s preferences; 3D printers producing prosthetic hands; robots (or agents/algorithms) that automatically trade stocks at ultra-high speeds without human intervention; ATMs capable of performing almost any kind of banking transaction; autopilots that guide airplanes most of the time; assistants in cars that can park a vehicle in a narrow space, prevent the driver from falling asleep, and find the fastest route from A to B; window-cleaning robots for large business buildings and skyscrapers; humanoid robots selling Nespresso machines to customers in Japan; train-line logistics systems for the high-speed transport of customer orders in sushi restaurants; drones for finding survivors at disaster sites and for rapidly delivering blood samples to analytical laboratories; assistive suits for carrying heavy objects (in particular, patients in hospitals and retirement residences); robots for delivering food and drugs in hospitals; robots and robot kits for schools and higher education; robotic toys; and a plethora of robots for fun and entertainment. This list could be extended almost indefinitely.

Are we ultimately nothing but machines?

All of these achievements have the potential to make our lives easier and more comfortable. But as we all know, not everyone is happy about it, and people are asking questions. One of the reasons for these feelings of uneasiness is related to the fact that we, as human beings, very much like to be special and different from the rest of the world. This is beautifully argued by one of the greatest roboticists of our times, Rodney Brooks, in his book Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us.

Throughout history, mankind has suffered a number of blows to its sense of specialness. In the 16th century, Copernicus suggested a heliocentric view of the universe – and in 1859, the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was felt by many to be the ultimate strike against human specialness. We are not only similar to apes, but have the same ancestors as the monkeys in a zoo. But this was not enough: in the 20th century, the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick made it clear that the reproductive mechanisms of humans are identical to those of baker’s yeast! The flatworm C. elegans has 20,000 genes, whereas humans have 30,000 – only 10,000 more, which is not a big difference. But at least we are intelligent, whereas baker’s yeast and flatworms aren’t.

The fear of technology

Now, as the result of artificial intelligence and robotics, machines are becoming more and more intelligent: yet another threat to our specialness is looming on the horizon and building up at great speed. As a result of these developments, are we on the way to losing our last havens of specialness? Perhaps ultimately we are nothing but machines, as put forward by Brooks, who said, “I am a machine. And so are you!”

People are concerned, and their questions need to be answered. The biggest worries are about emotions: what will it be like to interact with robots? How will robots impact our feelings and, in turn, our well-being? Can they be dangerous and hurt us?

The motivation for this question often comes from Terminator-style sci-fi. The answer is that we already have drones for military operations. At the Berlin Wall, there were automated machine guns as far back as the 1980s, to kill anyone trying to move across the gap. The sight of robots like “Big Dog” from Boston Dynamics on YouTube conjures up fantasies of mean, murderous robots. And of course self-driving cars, if they are not constructed properly, can (and have) hurt humans, just like normal cars. Also, as with any kind of technology, failures are part of the game – and wherever there is failure, there is the potential that humans can get hurt. A programming error in an autopilot can lead to disaster and many deaths, but the same has always been true of technology in general.

More importantly, though, there is a psychological factor: if robots have the appearance of human beings, we have a strong penchant to attribute human-like properties to them. We tend to project human thoughts, intentions and feelings onto them. We believe that they could get angry and might be malicious, punishing and injuring us. As the famous Oxford biologist David McFarland used to call it, “Anthropomorphization, the incurable disease.” The solution here is to make a clear distinction between the true mechanisms underlying the robots’ behaviors, and the characteristics we project onto them. In most cases, our fears will not be justified by the reality of how the robots function.

Predicting the future is very difficult, so we will leave these questions unanswered. But one thing is for sure: whatever happens, it will fundamentally change the way we view ourselves and the world around us. (Photo: Yves Gellie/Picturetank/Agentur Focus)

Predicting the future is very difficult, so we will leave these questions unanswered. But one thing is for sure: whatever happens, it will fundamentally change the way we view ourselves and the world around us. (Photo: Yves Gellie/Picturetank/Agentur Focus)

Couldn’t we simply pull the plug?

The next question: if there are going to be so many robots everywhere, will they reproduce? The idea of self-replicating robots - machines that can autonomously construct functional copies of themselves - has romantic appeal, but it also conjures up images of a runaway technological cataclysm. If, in addition, the robots of the future are super-intelligent and malicious, this is an absolute horror scenario.

Today’s robots and computers already self-reproduce; it’s just that their reproductive mechanisms are different from those of humans. They don’t use DNA-based principles, as biological systems do; instead, they exploit people to do the job for them. They force us to build factories for them so that they can multiply more efficiently, and the good ones proliferate, whereas the ones that don’t make it in the market eventually become extinct. This is the Darwinian nature of our economic system.

If we don’t agree with the direction in which technology is going, couldn’t we simply “pull the plug” on the robots (or the computers)? Of course we can pull the plug on an individual robot – that’s no problem. But it wouldn’t be one or a few plugs. We would have to pull billions of plugs. Even if we wanted to, this is no longer possible. The stock exchange, the entire economic system, all the supply chains, logistics systems and traffic would break down, and there would be a global famine – a true doomsday vision. We must keep the computers and the robots going. In a sense, we are already the slaves of the machines we have created – they use us, the humans, to keep themselves going. The computers and robots are already forcing us to maintain and continuously upgrade them. So the downside of the current situation is that we have long since been enslaved by robots and computers. The upside is that we apparently value the benefits of this “enslavement” more highly than the costs.

Creativity as an algorithm

Will the robots of the future be creative? One feature that distinguishes humans from other species is our creativity. Whether machines and robots, in particular, can be creative has been a hotly debated topic ever since the inception of the field of artificial intelligence in the 1950s, and it is still an open question. On its ST-5 satellite, NASA is using an antenna whose shape was developed using a genetic algorithm. Its performance is superior to that of antennas designed by human engineers. Is this creativity or just an optimization procedure? Josh Bongard, a computer scientist and artificial intelligence researcher, has developed algorithms that are capable of designing artificial creatures that perform tasks in a simulated world, such as pushing blocks or grasping objects. The interesting point is that neither the shape, neural system, nor behavior of these creatures is preprogrammed: they have all emerged from an evolutionary system. Is this creative? “It’s just an optimization algorithm,” some might be inclined to say – but if you see these creatures (and we’ve shown them to biologists), you can’t help but be awed. Their design, their shape, and way they move and solve problems are mind-boggling. Many observers have said, “Wow, that is creative!” It would be a fundamental mistake to call an activity non-creative simply because it is performed by a computer or a robot.

And let’s not overestimate our own human creativity. There is a beautiful scene in the dystopian science fiction film I, Robot in which the detective Del Spooner is talking to Sonny, the robot. Spooner says, “Human beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams. But not you – you are just a machine, an imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony?” And Sonny replies, “Can you?” Of course most people can’t! But still we consider ourselves so splendidly creative. We are special, after all – or are we?

Will the robots of the future be conscious, as suggested by films like this? Will they act according to moral principles (following Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”)? Will they have their own rights (as outlined in the Korean “Robotics Charter”)? Will they be super-intelligent – i.e., much more intelligent than humans, as prophesied by Singularitarians like Ray Kurzweil? Who is liable if a robot causes an accident? Will robots have feelings? Predicting the future is very difficult, so we will leave these questions unanswered.

Meeting up in the Robolounge

One thing is for sure: whatever happens, it will fundamentally change the way we view ourselves and the world around us. But we are not doomed to just sit here and be overrun by technological progress. We can create the future by guiding its course in a desirable direction. Here’s how: the Robolounge.

The goal of the Robolounge is to move the future into the present. It is a place, a lounge, a bar, where instead of human beings, robots will take care of the well-being of the customers. Will people accept them? Just 50 years ago, nobody had a clue as to how mobile technology and the internet would fundamentally change virtually every aspect of our society. We were pretty much overrun by the technology and had no time to familiarize ourselves with it. The whole transition might have been much smoother, and we might have been able to avert some of the negative consequences, if we had had the opportunity to experiment with the technologies beforehand. And this is precisely where the Robolounge comes in. It will provide firsthand experience with the future technology of highly interactive robots, rather than mere talk about it.

A group of robotic engineers, artists, entertainment experts and business innovators are already working with inventive technology companies on this project. The team is currently developing the first prototypes of the Robolounge and encouraging enterprises, potential strategic partners, and private investors to engage in the future of robotics.

The Robolounge is more than a prediction. It is a venue where people will actually be able to experience the future and share their feelings in a real-life environment, in a lounge with drinks and food and a great atmosphere. It is also a hub, a social experiment, and a public window where pioneering international firms will showcase and test their latest technologies not only in terms of functionality but social acceptance. Rather than simply speculating about what lies ahead, with this lounge platform people can get a feel for what it will be like when we live together with robots (and other machines). We want to create the future, not just passively drift into it. People will be encouraged to actively participate in shaping our future by immersing themselves in the Robolounge.

So, see you all in the Robolounge... perhaps some of the as-yet-unanswered questions will find solutions through personal experience. Cheers!

About the author: Rolf Pfeifer is a Swiss mathematician who ranks among the world’s top ten robotics researchers. The University of Tokyo awarded him the title of “21st Century Center of Excellence Professor.” Pfeifer currently teaches at the universities of Osaka and Shanghai.