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Robocalypse – are the machines taking over?

Robocalypse – are the machines taking over?

From Pepper, the emotional robot and Aiko, the humanoid robot receptionist, to Mecha bot battles and clumsy bipedal robots competing to open doors, there doesn’t seem to be a day that goes by without us hearing about the latest exciting development in robotics technology.

Last week, however, robomania struck a new and more ominous tone when a man died at a Volkswagen factory in Germany, crushed by an industrial arm while installing software.

Initial conclusions indicated ‘human error’ was to blame for the accident, while experts rushed to explain that assembly line robots have no independent thought and mis-programming can therefore lead to such incidents, rare as they are.

Of course, that doesn’t make quite as catchy a headline as ‘Robot Kills Man’.

And therein lies an interesting dispute – according to Mashable, robots cause fewer deaths than toilets, zips and trousers at less than one incident a year. Yet social media channels were alive with the sound of fear and scepticism as questions were raised about human safety in the coming era of robotics. One billionaire entrepreneur went as far as to announce a £6m donation to fund research projects dedicated to keeping artificial intelligence under “meaningful human control”.

It’s not as though this is the first time we’ve felt intimidated by the technology either – you need look no further than The Matrix trilogy, I, Robot or Channel 4’s new Humans series to know that humanity is obsessed with the idea of machines conquering the world.

Channel 4's new show demonstrates our obsession with robots.

Channel 4’s new show demonstrates our obsession with robots.

In some ways, maybe we’re right to. After all, how many manufacturers are there that now put products together by hand? In Japan (who, let’s face it, are well and truly leading the pack when it comes to robotics adoption), robots are even being used to plug the skills gap in hospitals and geriatric care as the country battles with a rapidly ageing society.

But it’s not those robots that we generally fear – it’s the ones we’ve created in our own image, capable of emotional reactions and conversation, that truly take us aback and make us question whether we’re not developing the technology too quickly, or whether we’ve really thought through the consequences it could entail.

Personally, I think we’re on the cusp of a critical ethical debate – to build or not to build? Do we play God and push to achieve more than we ever dreamed possible, or do we accept our mortality and admit that some things were just not meant to be because what happens if, one day, our creations turn around and decide they don’t need a God? Then again, it’s not really in our nature to give up when we know that we’re capable of more.

However, I do believe developers and engineers need to take heed of people’s genuine concerns. Yes, perhaps we have been over-sensitised by the media. And yes, when disaster bots end up collapsing in the dust unable to complete the simple task of climbing over some rubble, perhaps we do have a long way to go before we even come close to such a scenario.

But if robots are going to be embedded into everyday life, would it not be wiser to spend some time educating society, instead of ploughing on ahead and making the very concept inaccessible to all but a few? After all, in the famous words of Andrew Smith, “People fear what they don’t understand and hate what they can’t conquer”.

Funny thing, no one actually seems to know who Andrew Smith was – maybe the robots got to him first.