Walking among robots

Are you against slavery? Robots are, etymologically speaking, slaves. The word was coined in the 1920s by Czech science fiction writer C. Capek in the play R.U.R.

Even if people tend to think of robots as futuristic beings, the idea of creating artificial servants and companions has been present in our social imagery throughout history, from Greek god Hephaestus’ gold maids to al-Jazari’s humanoid servants, from Leonardo da Vinci’s mechanical knight to Vaucanson’s automata.

Regardless, most significant advancements in the creation of artificial living beings are taking place nowadays. Thus, we should expect robots to be the next big change in technologically developed societies.

Popular international robotics contests illustrate the exponential growth experienced in the robotics field of the last decades.

RoboCup is an international scientific initiative originally established with the goal “to field a team of robots capable of winning against the human soccer World Cup champions by 2050” (see robocup.org). The contest seeks to advance in the state of the art of intelligent robots.

Another appealing contest is The Loebner Prize for most human-like chatter robots, which are computer programs designed to simulate an intelligent conversation with humans. The competition uses the controversial Turing Test, proposed in the 1950s by the British mathematician A. Turing, based on the premise that a machine would be considered to “think” when its responses became indistinguishable from those coming from a human.

In the last decade, we’ve also seen how humanoid social robots started to become popular. The family is already considerably big:  Asimo, Nao, HRP4, or the Geminoids are among the most popular members.

Even if social robots are still in its infancy, their expansion into our every-day lives is more than likely to occur. Some of them, including Sony’s robotic pet Aibo and the iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaning robot have already been launched to the consumer market.

We should not conceptualize this scenario as in a science fiction movie such as fearing a robot revolution destroying humankind.

The introduction of service robots for professional, domestic, and entertainment purposes (even though most of them aren’t humanoids) is already happening in a normalized way, perhaps in a similar manner to when computers were progressively introduced to our homes.

Roomba is one of the most significant examples of this smooth implementation in our homes. Over 10 million Roomba units have already been sold and spend their time cleaning houses worldwide every day.

Another noteworthy demonstration of the democratization of robots is Pepper, which was introduced in the Japanese market in February 2015 at a base price of JPY 198,000 (less than US$ 2,000). Pepper is a humanoid social robot 1.2m. (4 ft.) tall designed to be a companion at home. It (or should I say he?) is able to interpret and express emotions, and to give conversation.

As usually happens with revolutionary technologies, the debate between technophobics and technophilics is on the table. This is because technology implementations have the ability to modify our lives. Robots are likely to do so, too. Whether changes are going to be for better or worse is yet to decide. However, let’s not forget that are not technologies per se but the use we give them that makes them good or bad.

On the optimistic side, these artificial creatures are envisaged for physical assistance and housework, for rescue and dangerous activities that are unsafe for humans, or even to work as body extensions in people with disabilities. Likewise, they are expected to be able to develop more social functions, such as to take care of the elderly, assist sick people at home and hospitals, work as teaching assistants, or give company. On the pessimistic side, seeing robots as killers at the service of military purposes or as a menace to people’s jobs are perhaps the most extended fears.

Such fear, of humans being replaced by machines, is nothing new. It’s interesting to observe the parallelisms that exist between a potential massive implementation of robots in our lives and the arrival of machines in factories during Industrial Revolution. In the early 1800s revolts against machines were frequent as workers feared that they would replace their jobs. At the end, machines contributed to substantially modify occupational roles but didn’t replace humans. Robot development and commercialization on a large scale would likely have a similar effect.

Paraphrasing Asimov, “it is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be…”. While constant evolution of robotics technology seems unavoidable, it’s on our hands to decide what we want robots for and what we want them to become. It’s time to decide how we wanna walk among robots.


Cite this article:

Aymerich-Franch, L.(2016, February 13). Walking among robots. Retrieved from: mediatedembodiment.com/walking-among-robots/


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