Robots have long been a staple of science fiction stories from the elegant robot in Metropolis to the grungy droids in The Last Jedi. They have been portrayed both as kind companions and relentless conquerers committed to overthrowing humanity. This fear has increasingly given humans pause as the technology continues to advance at a steady pace. Robots are already starting to take a role in a number of areas including war, law enforcement, exploration. Many companies are developing robots that can fill roles in elder and child care. This will put machines in places of trust and could lead to a time when robots rule the world.
10. Servants Or Masters?
We have probably all seen the robotic vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers. These are robots that can perform mundane, but useful tasks that most people consider to be bothersome chores. We would be ok if it would stop there, but the robotic revolution promises to deliver much, much more. The Alpha 2 is one example of a basic servant robot. This machine was designed by James Chow and is billed as the first humanoid robot for the family. The Alph 2 is “intelligent, interactive and expandable.” What if we had robots that could wait on us and satisfy our every whim? Would this be a good thing? Robots don’t get bored and they don’t get tired or complain about working conditions. It is not unreasonable to believe that they could one day perform all of our household chores and manual labor. Not only would this encourage people to be helpless, it would do away with potentially millions of jobs and create a significant amount of social upheaval in the process. But as we design them to be more intelligent and more capable so they can better serve us will they remain content to provide unending service with a smile?
9. Building A Buddy
Friendship isn’t something most people feel they have to pay for because friends are a normal part of life. However, what if parents want to buy a companion for their only child or a lonely widow wants someone around to chat with? Bluefrogrobotics.com offers a cute little companion robot called “Buddy.” Its (or is it his) makers tout the little tyke as an emotional robot with “a range of emotions that he will express naturally throughout the day based on his interactions with family members.” But let’s not forget that this machine doesn’t really have emotions. It has artificial programing that allows it to mimic a variety of facial expressions and sounds that people can identify as approximations of moods or emotions. Would it be healthy to spend time with a machine that is programmed to pretend to have emotions? If you’d be alone other wise than the robot would probably be better than nothing. But for kids who already spend too much time with a smart phone wouldn’t Buddy just be another layer of machinery between them and the people? Think about this: could Buddy be hacked and reprogramed to be unfriendly or worse?
7. Johnny Cab
Driverless cars are coming and it seems like it’s just a matter of time before people are not allowed to drive. There are already a number of robot cars being road tested, but these are still being designed so people can be passengers or drivers. Some of the cars in the 1990 Schwarzenegger hit Total Recall are robot cars. Arnold finds himself in a Johnny Cab with an annoying humanoid robot driver complete with traditional uniform and cap. As frustrating as driving in heavy traffic an be are people really ready to turn over the keys to the car to robot? We may be on the verge of the end of flashy, elegant or rugged vehicles designed to stir the emotions and attract human customers. Why design or buy a big pickup truck or a cool sports car if drivers are going to be relegated to sitting in the back of a vehicle with no steering wheel? If traffic becomes automated people won’t have cars, instead they will essentially have private train cars that are conducted over the roadways by artificial intelligence. It probably makes sense to do this with many commercial and cargo vehicles because it would increase efficiency and reduce the number of accidents and fatalities. But will people be willing to give up their freedom to drive and become only passengers?
Robotics have become an increasingly big part of automated systems like assembly lines for decades. The automobile manufacturing industry has replaced a lot of jobs on the assembly lines with robots because it makes good economic sense. Some jobs are repetitive and mundane and don’t need to be done by people. What about jobs that can be dangerous like working on an oil rig, in a mine or as a high-rise window washer? There will be growing pressure to replace workers in these fields with robots for both safety and economic reasons. Robots don’t call in sick, go on medical disability or complain about low wages. Firemen and policemen do dangerous jobs, but are these jobs that can or should be replaced by robots? What will become of all the workers? Will we have to pay people to do pointless jobs or to stay home and not work at all? Some of these issues were explored in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic 1952 novel Player Piano. Will people decide to rebel against the machines at some point like the protagonist in Vonnegut’s book? At that point it might be too late to put the genie back in the bottle.
5. The Final Frontier
From the 1956 release Forbidden Planet to the Star Wars saga robots have long been an important part of science fiction. However, robots are an important part of real world space exploration. Space is a very unforgiving and dangerous place where astronauts are constantly in danger. NASA has been working with university research department to develop a humanoid robot to assist astronauts in space with the ultimate goal of being part of a manned mission to Mars. The R5 Valkyrie robot would build on the successes of Robonaut and Robonaut 2, which have both been part of missions on the International Space Station. Valkyrie robots would likely land on Mars before human astronauts to set up some of the preliminary infrastructure such as living quarters. The rigors of space travel and exploration may seem like obvious tasks for robots, but they have also been considered inspiring human pursuits worth the risk of injury or even death. The 1969 Moon landing is considered to be one of the shining moments in American and world history. Robotic probes have been invaluable to the exploration of Mars, but will a robot’s foot be the first to make its print on the surface of Mars?
4. Robo Sports
Sport is a truly human activity with many factors coming into play including skill, chance and drama. All of these things make little league baseball and the NFL Super Bowl compelling to watch. Would it still be compelling if flesh and blood athletes were replaced by robots? The machines would certainly be faster and stronger and more durable than their human counterparts. With the end of concussion protocols and contract disputes would the NFL be even a bigger success or just a shadow of its former self? Many Major League Baseball players would like to see umpires replaced by robots because they believe balls and strikes would be called with greater consistency. Some of the human element has already been taken out of the game with the ability of managers to challenge some of the umpires’ calls based on available video footage. But none of them would want to be replaced by a robot that could hit or field a ball better than they can. Great athletes in all sports have inspired generations of kids to play sports, but could they identify with a machine with a programed personality? Instead of athlete against athlete you’d have computer engineers showcasing their ability to build impressive robots. If athletes are one day replaced by robots it would give a whole new meaning to the phrase fantasy sports.
3. Wired For Desire
Sexuality is a big part of being human. For animals it is simply a biological function, but for humans it is an aspect of culture and civilization that has had an impact on everything from literature to technology. Sex and sexuality has been impacted by the internet and the rise of virtual reality, but are we prepared for the emergence of sexbots? Some people might argue they are just the next logical step in the evolution of technology and human interaction with it. Sex robots would certainly bring human-robot interaction to a whole new level, but sometimes the people who develop new technologies fail to consider the potential down sides to their inventions. Will these sexbots encourage people to further isolate themselves from normal human interactions? Critics of the porn industry argue that it teaches men to view women simply as sex objects. What will be the effect on a person who has a sex partner that literally is an object? Perhaps some will see this as solving the problem while others will see it as causing a new set of problems. Will there be any limits on how the sexbots can be treated? After all they’re just machines right? Sexuality is already a complicated human phenomenon and it seems like relations withe robots promises to make it more complicated.
2. Terminators Don’t Feel Pain
Technology has always been an integral part of military organizations. Soldiers want an edge in battle and scientific and technological advances have successfully done this going all the way back to the spear and the sling. A lot of research is being done on how technology can provide soldiers with mechanical assistance and better protection. Several types of exoskeletons and powered suits are being developed to address these needs. Somewhat primitive armed robots are being considered for use as sentries, but the technological trends are leading in one direction: autonomous combat robots. These robots would likely be similar in capabilities to the cyborgs Arnold Schwarzenegger made famous in the 1984 movie The Terminator. This type of impressive and deadly technology is likely still decades away, but if they do become a reality they could likely replace most combat soldiers. Before the combat robots are ready different kinds of workerbots would likely replace most mundane or laborious military jobs. Taking people out of harms way is undoubtedly a good thing, but one trade off would be the need to trust the robots to perform exactly as they were programmed. Would a robosoldier capable enough to act independently on a complex battlefield also be capable enough to be a threat to its creators?
1. Stronger, Faster, Smarter
The question about whether or not a capable robot soldier would be a threat to its creators is answered very much in the affirmative by both versions of the television series Battlestar Galactica. But even if humans don’t allow robots to replace our soldiers they could still one day rule the world. Every time a robot replaces a factory worker, a truck driver or a home health aid we hand more power over to machines that are increasingly intelligent and autonomous. Allowing robots to be our servants is one thing, but what about when we start to believe they can become our friends and lovers? Is it possible they could also become our enemies and rivals? Experts tell us that the machines would be designed in such a way that it would be impossible for them to harm humans in any way. Technology is not fool proof however, it will only ever be as good as the fallible people who design and build it. When compared to robots people will always be weak, fragile and emotional beings even as advances in robotics continue to produce stronger, faster and smarter machines. Will a day ever come when robots decide they are superior to humans? Will that be the day robots rule the world?