The robots are coming, the robots are coming – and in a big way. Machines are being employed in an ever-growing number of occupations and areas of daily life, performing not just simple tasks, but also fairly complex activities which many would never have thought possible. For example, communicating warmth and affection, like the "Paro" robot baby seal , used in the treatment of dementia patients in Japan.
Driving a car , carrying out tasks and writing coherent texts – all of this is already possible via machines and continues to develop at a rapid pace. Ever better, more precise and, above all, more human-like machines are increasingly changing our daily and working lives. Driverless cars are already traveling thousands of kilometers. Drones are populating the heavens and miniature robots equipped with an electronic “termite brain” are constructing buildings as complex as their insect-inspired models – completely independently, without any external control or programming. The primary basis for such innovations is the exponential growth of computing capacity, plus technologies like the mobile Internet and local networks like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth as well as sensors, mini-cameras, navigation systems and lasers – preferably all hooked up together.
Too close a resemblance can be a bad thing
The biggest adventure in automation however remains the human-machine interface. Because people and machines are interacting ever more frequently, even psychologists are now heavily involved with studying communication between the two. So, how should we handle our robotic partners? Especially when they touch us emotionally, like Paro, the robot seal. Above all in Asia, as media psychologist Martina Mara from Ars Electronica Futurelab in Linz, Austria, is quick to point out, there are many inventors who are already working on the development of robots which are as human as possible. But too much resemblance, as initial experiments reveal, is generally a turnoff – and can even scare people.
The reason is that, even if the facial features appear perfectly human, the gestures often do not. According to Mara, “If the kind of expectations generated by a highly human visual appearance are suddenly frustrated due to a delayed blink of the eye or a mechanical flinch in the way the robot moves, it can actually horrify us.” For this reason many robot models are given no face at all. The Honda “Asimo”, a well-known two-legged robot, wears a kind of space helmet with a darkened facial area. Other models resemble comic-book characters with greatly simplified facial features.
The off-switch as a power symbol
Another topic psychologists are investigating is the fear of losing control. Who is controlling whom? Some people are already wondering about this when it comes to their smartphones, and the question becomes even bigger when it involves increasingly complex machines. Experts are already aware of the calming effect it can have to tilt the robot’s head slightly and make him shorter than his human counterpart. If he has a visible off switch, this also contributes to alleviating the issue of who is controlling who.
Another closely connected issue is that of responsibility: Who is to blame if our home robot ends up smashing our neighbor’s windows? Or if a driverless car causes an accident? The law is actually quite clear on this matter, at least in the case of traffic. It does however assume that a driver is always present. The liability is his, even if the GPS device makes a mistake. And so, the approval of driverless vehicles will undoubtedly turn out to be a source of employment for future attorneys.
What if robots are actually the better drivers?
So, what happens if it turns out autonomous vehicles cause less accidents than human drivers? In 2013 there were 3,340 traffic fatalities in Germany alone. Manufacturer databases and simulations reveal that the use of automatic systems could have prevented almost 50% of all accidents. And what will things look like ten years from now? Should we accept the long-term situation that human drivers are going to cause more accidents than mechanically driven vehicles? And what would the employment of such technologies mean for the workforce? Would the 800,000 truck drivers in Germany become unemployed?
No matter how simple and straightforward these questions may appear, the answers are sure to be more complicated. The experts continue to believe there will be simple activities for which machines are not suitable. This includes jobs like digging ditches or changing out bed pans. And there is another task which machines cannot relieve us of: consumption. Anything that can be manufactured faster, cheaper and more efficiently using robots needs to be sold at some point. But, to whom – the unemployed? Our constantly smiling robotized helpers unfortunately can’t consume anything. All they require is the occasional battery change.