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No, you shouldn’t be scared about robots

20 Jul 2023 |

Steven Maclaren will be holding a keynote session at the IFA Sustainability Village on September 2nd. 

We live in strange times. It seems that every other week we encounter technologies that, a mere 30 years ago, would only be found in out-there science fiction shows. We carry devices that let us access the full breadth of human knowledge, we use artificial intelligence systems to answer any questions we have, and we can watch robots doing parkour.

What’s interesting is how the public reaction to this has changed. The sort of sci-fi enthusiasm that defined shows like Star Trek seems a thing of the past. Instead of reacting to technical developments with excitement and optimism, people seem to exhibit more fear or worry.

Take robots, for example. In a show like The Jetsons, they are shown as living alongside humans and helping them; society found a sense of delight in their potential. But nowadays? A cursory look online will show you a culture that’s more concerned with a robot uprising than all the ways they can help us.

But is this accurate? Should we take all this doom-and-gloom seriously? Are robots as bad as people say?

To get to the truth of the matter, we knew what we had to do: speak with Steve Maclaren, COO of the National Robotarium.

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You know what? Robots are good, actually

The first thing we asked Maclaren was how he sees robots making a genuine, positive impact on society.

“I can see things changing for the better in a lot of areas,” he says.

One of these is construction. Maclaren pointed towards the work that Boston Dynamics is doing with its robots, particularly Spot, the quadruped dogs.

“What we do is we fit a LiDAR sensor onto the top of [Spot],” Maclaren says, about using the robots on a building site. “Basically, you can send Spot the dog in to go around and map the environment.”

This is useful for a number of reasons. Firstly, it could reduce the danger of people getting injured in areas unsafe for humans. Secondly, it could accurately — and quickly — provide an outline of the area, allowing humans to get on with more intricate and interesting work. Finally, when the building project is underway, it would allow consistent progress updates of how the structure is going.

The first of those points — robots making humans safer — is something Maclaren brought up several times in our conversation.

“We’re able to take people out of dangerous environments” and use robots in their place, he says.

This has endless positive potential across a gamut of industries. Think of mining for materials, checking on undersea communication lines, or any sort of work in the offshore energy sector. As an example, Maclaren pointed us towards the use of robotic submarines that can “inspect the foundations of wind turbines safely without the need for a human to be put in harm's way.” 

When we have robots embedded in different sectors, our lives will get substantially safer. That’s the sort of uprising we can get on board with.

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Lending humans a helping hand

It’s not just in workplaces where our robotic friends can help us out — they’re pretty handy at saving lives in a variety of circumstances.

In our conversation, Maclaren tells us that medical tech is one of the areas where robotics can make a monumental difference. “Being able to really identify things like a tumour and more accurately cutting it out” helps improve the “the recovery and the health of the patient afterwards.”

This will allow for a higher level of surgical accuracy, meaning risky operations suddenly become feasible when a robot is involved — which could save millions upon millions of lives.

Another aspect Maclaren talked about regarding the positive use of robots was in the care sector.

“[Robotics can] help people live independently,” he says, explaining that they can be assistants for people who struggle with all manner of tasks, whether that be reaching shelves or cleaning. On top of that, robots can also be substitute companions, with AI systems helping keep people engaged and happy. This is a fantastic boon — especially when you consider how deadly loneliness can be.

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But will robots take our jobs?

This is an age old question — and an important one to address. 

Combing through the examples given above, you’ll see many of the services robots will provide in the future are things that humans have traditionally done. Yes, a large portion of the roles are things that people are either unable, unwilling, or unsuitable to do, but they still could provide an income. 

I asked Maclaren if we should be concerned.

He thinks the opposite: “It’s a real opportunity,” he tells us, “because at the end of the day, robots need to be controlled by humans.”

He believes this will lead to new skills being needed by the job market, meaning an industry that needs people to learn, teach, and develop these attributes.

“Each robot has to be built,” Maclaren says, “each robot has to be managed, controlled, and programmed — all of that takes skills society needs to be developing."

He sums it up, saying that robots won’t be taking our roles, instead they’ll be “allowing us to do higher level type jobs,” rather than dangerous or repetitive ones. In other words, robots can give us more time to be, well, human.

Let’s just be buds

As far as any worries the public may have about an intelligent robot uprising, Maclaren is quick to dispel any fears. 

“Robotics and AI will go as far as we humans want it to,” he says, “we are in control.”

And, if we have the correct vision and society adapts, the technology has the potential to do wonderful things. It can alleviate suffering, make the lives of everyone on the planet better, and deliver us more time to do the things we want to do.

Yes, modern technology has impacted our lives in ways we could never have imagined, but that’s no reason to only look on the dark side of advances. With the correct approach, technologies like robotics and AI can become integral tools in improving the planet, not bringing it to its knees.

Don’t let all the naysayers dampen your enthusiasm. A utopian, science fiction future is possible — we just need to believe in it.

Interested to hear more about this topic? Get your ticket for IFA here.

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