The robot revolution: do we know what we’re in for?

What images crop up when you think of a ‘robot’? Will Smith, walking through rows of shiny, metallic creatures in iRobot? Prehistoric looking ‘droid’ robots in Star Wars (which seem nowadays laughably ancient), or the (once terrifying) Dalek in Dr. Who? More recently, ‘robots’ have morphed into sophisticated, multi-talented and more human-like characters in Avengers, such as Iron Man.

Robots have been a key feature of sci-fi movies for some time: there are so many versions of what a ‘robot’ is, that even the word has become misleading. And though all of these images are popular myths and can feel pretty far away, a lot of people are saying that the ‘robot revolution’ now really is upon us.

Is it? And should we be afraid, as the movies suggest? Depictions of robots taking over the world and turning against their ‘makers’- such as in the film Ex Machina, which sees a frighteningly real looking female robot fall in love with a human, then turn against him - are not a million miles away from what could happen in a world which is creating more and more intelligent androids.

In fact, in making the film, director Alex Garland did loads of research into AI and humanoid robotics and says the tech firm depicted in the film has hundreds of versions of androids in the real world, most of them in China.

What are they used for? Despite what the films say, not all robots have a negative impact. During the pandemic, a hospital in the Wuhan province (where it all began) began deploying robots to help out exhausted and overworked frontline workers, provide food and medical supplies for patients and disinfect large areas of land.

Here are some unusual, but useful things robots are doing right now: sorting through foods like rice; cleaning big supermarkets; helping autistic children socialise; acting as dummies in police and medical training; inspecting and cleaning out sewers; shelving and transporting in warehouses (guess which multimillion dollar company is using them? I’ll give you a clue- it begins with A and ends in N and is also the name of a river. No surprise there).

The goal is partly for robots to do the jobs humans don’t want to do- in a quicker, more efficient and cheaper way. Covid-19 may even have accelerated the development of robotic workforce, since lots of companies were/are needing to operate without people.

But people are also worried that robotic workforces may actually result in people losing jobs. And people also worry that, if we don’t watch out, robots will get too clever for their own good and come back to bite us, in Frankenstein fashion. Robotics need safety checks and they need to be used ethically.

Robots are already used as companions for the elderly in Japan. Japan has the oldest population in the world and many elderly people live alone and are lonely. Robots help them with daily tasks and keep them company.

For children there are cute, emotional, robot companion buddies, of which Pepper, Buddy and Sam are very human-looking and there is Paro, a large, white and fluffy, therapeutic robot rabbit. Paro is used in medical situations where the touching of animals by children is stress reducing.

There is no need to be as scared of robots as we are made to believe in all the sci-fi films. Robots can free us up from mundane chores and could be easy and uncomplicated companions. No lunch, loo or social media breaks needed! Robots are set to become a much more integrated part of everyday, human life. Soon we may all have one.

Further links