Robots are machines instructed to perform tasks by computer programs, autonomously or semi-autonomously.
What We Learned from the Dialogue
Robots are machines instructed to perform tasks by computer programs, autonomously or semi-autonomously. They can range from industrial robots that do one specific task, such as installing parts on a vehicle assembly line, to humanoids, such as Honda’s Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility (ASIMO) robot that can walk on two legs, recognize humans and voice commands, and autonomously interact with items in its environment. In the past several decades, robots have been used to:
Robots are often used in industry and scientific exploration where tasks are too dangerous, mundane or physically impossible for humans, such as in bomb disposal or deep-sea exploration.
Automation is a key factor in the rise of robots. Society is looking for easier and faster ways to accomplish more things. The once secret projects of governments are now the pet projects of several Fortune 500 companies. Several experts agree that robots will be the “the next big thing” after the mobile era ends. In 2013, Bill Gates, former Microsoft CEO, said publicly that robots and other automated technologies will have an exponential effect on society and likened their potential to the personal computer. Robotics is expected to become a $70 billion USD industry by 2025. Robots, for example, are already supplementing emergency healthcare. Highly contagious diseases, like Ebola, can spread rapidly in urban environments and the volume of medical needs can strain the healthcare system. To add to the complexity, there is already a worldwide shortage of trained healthcare workers. Responding to epidemics also puts healthcare workers at significant risk of infection.
Robots, with video screens to display the faces and voices of human healthcare workers, can provide diagnostic support, treatment and monitoring of medical patients. They can also assist nurses and doctors in removing their personal protective equipment, in burying the deceased, and in comforting people who are suffering from stress and trauma. While people are in quarantine, robots may also deliver medicines, basic necessities and video communications from loved ones.
Like other emerging technologies, robots also have an image problem—one manufactured by the entertainment industry. Robots were featured in radio, television and films since each was invented, and in popular books even before then. While robots have generally been portrayed positively, their negative roles are prominent. With the global reach of modern Hollywood, most urban residents have a mass media-influenced perception of robots’ capacity that often greatly exceeds their current capacity. That said, dialogue participants in Seoul, South Korea, were significantly more comfortable with and accepting of robots; some even owned household robots. There, government and commercial marketing initiatives had normalized these tools, set realistic expectations and overshadowed other influences.
During the dialogue, community members and experts in other countries struggled to find the consumer value in robots based on their pre-conceived notions. They believed institutions, such as firefighting units and hospitals, would find greater benefit to their operations. They based this recommendation on the fact that most community members do not possess the skills or time to program and operate robots. They acknowledged, however, that their skill levels may evolve over time, similar to how they learned to use personal computers, mobile phones and social media as they were introduced. They also anticipated that in the future, consumer robots would have simple remotes or be controlled by applications on a mobile phone or tablet.
The most common use cases for robots to assist with strengthening urban resilience, according to the dialogue participants, included supporting telepresence, psychosocial counseling, medical treatment, search and rescue, and clean-up assistance. Robots were seen as having the greatest value add when the human user could not be somewhere because of financial or physical limitations. Robots, they said, must possess powers humans would not otherwise have to prove their worth, and they must display a real human face and voice to be trusted.
The list of drawbacks, however, outweighed the participants’ nascent interest. Most could not imagine being able to own a robot, although in truth, some robots are no more expensive to own than a computer. Even the most expensive robots are on par with the cost of the most expensive unmanned aerial vehicles, and they could easily be shared or accessed through a fee-for-service model.
They also raised concerns about the robots’ durability. Many of the robots that are under development by government and academic labs are still too delicate for everyday use. Commercial robots that assist with household chores are a bit more rugged, but they are also designed to operate indoors with limited stimuli, and many require direct human control to move about in real-world environments.
Some also questioned the trustworthiness of robots, asking if they would betray the programmer/user. Others felt robots may pinch jobs from first responders and construction workers, and they did not want robots to become a substitute for human contact and knowledge. These barriers—ranging from perception and trust to technical abilities—will need to be addressed by developers before the average consumers will embrace them as helpful resources.