Robolift was a superb conference. Nicolas did an amazing job of assembling a diverse and passionate group of who discussed the current challenges, hopes and promises of robotics. For three full days, robots have taken the center stage and all those sessions ended up forming a coherent picture made of several key ideas and questions surrounding what will be major market in the future. Here is a quick recap of the key points that were made:
We can create emotional connections to robots
I’m human. Sometimes there are things that I believe against all logic. For me robots had to be objects we were keeping a certain distance with. Several speakers showed how that is not true: the Paro robot was one of the most striking example. Used with Alzheimer patients, this robotic seal creates authentic relationships with the people using it (see video, choose “PARO for patients in Italy”). Beyond these special usages, several talks showed how we engage with robots, whether it is kids helping a Roomba clean their bathroom’s floor, or people giving bots nicknames and treating them as members of the family.
As Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino pointed during her Q&A session, “Robots are objects, and we spend our life creating emotional attachment to objects. You feel sad when you break a vase your grandma offered you. It is the same with robots, we mourn them when they break down.” Robots are just regular objects, my intuitions and culture was creating an intriguing distance with that notion, but one can indeed be emotionally attached to them.
Robots really don’t have to look like robots
To make a long story short: movements and attitudes mean more than shape. That was clear after seeing tenth of videos, like those presented by Fumiya Iida. His robots mimic the movements of animals, and it is striking how this is enough to make you relate to and engage with the robot. You completely forget the fact it is a piece of metal you are watching, and start making a lot of parallels with creatures made of flesh and blood. You engage more than when looking at those humanoid robots that always fail at recreating the human touch effectively.
Robots can do amazing things, and stupid things
We saw a ball throwing robot, and a robot helping alzheimer patients. We saw Aibo learning to recognize objects with more or less success, and robots fighting in Afghanistan. The universal laws of innovation apply to robotics: technology is neutral. You can not say they are either smart or stupid. They are what people do with them, with all the diversity that represents.
Robots make us more social, and they make us less social
Another area where robots are just like other technologies (= neutral). Cynthia Breazeal talked about how a robot could allow a grandma to read a story to her grandchildren, and therefore expand our social capacities, allowing interactions that used to be more complicated, less fun, or otherwise impossible.
But robots could also be interpreted in a negative way. We saw kids playing with their roomba, and not with other kids. So expect many people to say “robots make us lonelier, we will stop interacting with humans”. As usual the truth is in a balanced view: sometimes the robot will allow us to expand our social horizon, sometimes they will make us choose to communicate with a machine rather than with other humans physically close to us.
There are a lot of open questions with ethics and legal
Robotics is like the internet in 1995. A space for hackers and pioneers, starting to be recognized by businesses, with a couple of success stories under its belt. The problem (or is it the opportunity…?) is that the field is way too young to be legislated by governments that barely know this is happening. So it is up to those pioneers to self regulate. And now is a time of big questions. Do we want robots to kill? Drones are being used by politicians because they offer a “dream” equation: fight with no risk of human casualties, at least on the drone’s army side. The problem according to Noel Sharkey: the “buffer” created between the fighter and the field, materialized by a 2 second delay between a command and it’s concretization on the field.
The army is apparently recruiting the video games generation with ads like “you were a good fighter on your PS3? Come and join us, we have a job for you!” Civilized war has several principles, like applying a proportional response to a specific threat. Judgment capabilities that robots are not yet able to reach (will they ever be?), yet we have them fight our wars, more and more every day. Another question: who is responsible if your Google car crushes adog on a pedestrian passage? Are you responsible because you signed a 500 pages user agreement approval you never read, or are the programmers responsible? Tons of open questions here, probably a few decades of legal debate and landmark cases before we have answers.
Cultures approach robots differently
One of the quote of the conference came from Fujiko Suda who answered my question on “why robots are coming from Asian countries like Japan or Korea?” by saying that Japanese “are not afraid to play god as they already have 8 millions of them”. There is an intriguing idea here, that our culture shapes how we perceive robots. Apparently in the West, we all consider that there is a superior being above us, the only entity allowed to create life-like creatures. Robots are, at least in our imagination, going to one day equal men in their appearance and intelligence. Maybe surpass us, and get out of control?
All this conditions our vision, and makes us more nervous than Japanese who see god in many aspects of their daily life. When they build a machine, they don’t cross as many lines as we do, hence their early adoption of these technology. It is not the only factor (an aging population in need of care is another one) but it is an important one.
Robots have something to do with god
As mentionned in my previous post, god came up quite a few times, and it seems there is definitely a relation between robots and religion. Dominique Sciamma claimed that “robots will finish the work Nietzche started, and kill god”. Maybe inventing and creating something as sophisticated and intelligent as humans will make Christians reconsider the genius of god? If a man can do it…
Overall, all the speakers gave very good talks. Congrats to Nicolas and the whole Lift team for doing such a great job. As Frédéric Kaplan told me in the train that was taking us back home, “it is rare to see a conference on Robotics able to make that topic as informative, thought provoking and entertaining”.