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Robots: The future is now

A CNN Future Summit technology profile

By CNN's Michael Bay and Matt Ford
Soon humanoid robots could become part of our everyday lives, taking on more and more household tasks

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start quoteMost of us would rather be attended to in a hospital by a robot than be ignored ...end quote
-- Joanne Pransky


Future Summit

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Humans have always been fascinated by the idea of robots. Science-fiction, so often the medium through which society explores the potential impact of new technology, has always been obsessed with robots, and some of the most enduring sci-fi characters have been robots, from R2D2 and C3PO, to The Terminator and Data.

But robots are already a part of our lives. Industrial robots widely used in manufacturing. Military and police organizations use robots to assist in dangerous situations. Robots can be found exploring the surface of Mars, and vacuuming the floors in your home.

Within a few more years a whole host of robotic adaptations could be running many aspects of our lives. "I think in the next thirty years, we're going to see a transformation between the industrial sorts of robots, to personal robots," says Brooks. Brooks' company, IRobot, markets floor cleaning robots for homes.

"The advances in robotics make it clear that many household chores will be easily handled by a robot in the near future," says Bob Christopher, the CEO of UGOBE, a robotic technology company that is marketing a toy robot called Pleo. (Full story)

BT Futurist-in-Residence and CNN Future Summit Nominating Committee member Ian Pearson envisions a home where robots outnumber humans. "I've only one child and one wife, but I could easily imagine five or six robots in the home as well."

"Within the next 10 years," says Joanne Pransky, who has been involved in robotics for twenty years and calls herself the Worlds First Robotic Psychiatrist, "I hope to be able to afford to lease or purchase a domestic robot that not only does the household cleaning and prepare and serve my meals, but could carry me to the bathtub if I can't walk, monitor my vital signs, and if I need a medical specialist from afar, could remotely become his or her eyes, hands, and ears."

Demographic changes, such as a rapidly aging population and a shrinking workforce will drive forward the application of new technology. "There is going to be a real pull for increasing the productivity of working age people," says Brooks. "So there's going to be a real push for robotics to help people." In addition it is likely that in the near future we will see robots taking on some of the care functions elderly, or long-term ill people, rely on."

"Most of us would rather be attended to in a hospital by a robot than be ignored," says Pransky, "and given the choice to stay in our own homes with a nursebot or go to a nursing home, a robot would allow us to continue to live independently as well as offer a more cost-effective alternative."

The development of robotic technologies is a global effort. "The Japanese government, academic institutions, and major corporations," says Pransky, "are investing billions of dollars each year on domestic robots aimed at altering everyday life." The South Korean government recently announced an initiative to put robots in every home by 2020 at the latest.

Robots on the job

Robots already have a significant role in medicine. Robots are helping doctors achieve more precision in the operating room, performing safer, less invasive techniques. For example, The da Vinci Surgical System by Intuitive Surgical helps simplify complex procedures, and lets surgeons work through much smaller incisions, thus making patient recovery easier.

"I have said on the record that, God forbid, I should need hip replacement surgery, I'd rather have a robot do it," says Ron Arkin, a roboticist working at the Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Group at LAAS/CNRS in Toulouse, France, and a CNN Future Summit Nominating Committee Member. "Advances in bio-robotics are leading to even more and more applications where, in my estimation, robots have the potential to perform better than human surgeons in certain respects."

The pace of technological change is rapid, and it is easily possible to foresee a time when robots become our teachers, policemen and even soldiers.

"Robots would be better soldiers than humans," believes Arkin. "They could strictly follow the rules of engagement, codes of conduct, and war protocols far better than more passionate humans, resulting in a reduction of war crimes."

"Most robots in the future will do jobs which are the sorts of things that people use to do," says Pearson. "They will take away a lot of the mundane physical jobs certainly"

Some experts predict that it's not just manual jobs that will be replaced.

"The more advanced the technology becomes, the more it forces us to focus on those things that are fundamentally human," says Pearson, who believes robots will help shift the humanity from an information economy to a 'care' economy. "We call the future economy the care economy because its dominated by caring skills, interpersonal skills, emotional skills if you like, and the human contact is essential."

Bob Christopher agrees: "There will always be a need for human involvement since there will always be things that are uniquely human -- like having a conscience."

"The effect of robots" says Hans Moravec, "clearly has implications for the economy."

Moravec, chief scientist at Seegrid in Pittsburgh, has a vision of what the economic changes may entail: "Social security will have to be expanded, introduced at lower and lower ages, till essentially everyone lives on social security. The taxes will be paid by fully-automated businesses run by robots. And human beings have to deal with the problem of excess leisure as was anticipated in the 50's and 60's when automation really started to gain a lot of momentum."

Robots and human society

"I am afraid that the long term future we are building will have no space left for human beings, "says Daniela Cerqui, a social and cultural anthropologist at the Institute of Sociology and Anthropology of the University of Lausanne. "I definitely do not like the idea of robots replacing human beings."

"What it means to be a healthy human is to move, to do work, we shouldn't replace that or cancel it out," says MIT's Hugh Herr. "I'm personally disturbed by the notion of a world where we have these robots and better and better artificial intelligence, where systematically those systems replace humans, human services, human work. I think we're at our limit at what machines should do for us."

start quoteWould you want your daughter to marry a robot?end quote
-- Ron Arkin

"I would expect people to form psychological attachments with these artifacts. We already do so more or less: to cars to video games to Tamagotchis to AIBOs, to name a few," says Arkin. "The impact of this on our social fabric is unknown, but there are real concerns. Many consider robot intimacy, beyond simply sex machines, the next big market or killer application, but that really pushes the limits. Would you want your daughter to marry a robot? What would the church think of such unions?"

And what happens if, or when, robots are more intelligent than us?

"If we're going to start to see robots running around with personalities equivalent to human beings, in say fifteen, twenty years time," say Pearson, "it's about time that we start thinking about that now."

Arkin agrees: "These machines are being developed. What will be the ultimate effect of this? Should they be allowed to make decisions regarding the application of lethal force? What form and how intimate should human-robot relationships become? Is it a good or bad thing if robots become our natural successors and we fade into extinction?"

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