Learning to like robots

Sabine Hauert is Lecturer in Robotics at the University of Bristol, and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. She’s also the President and co-founder of Robohub.org.Sabine Hauert 150.jpg

Robots hold the potential to improve the way we work, live, and explore new frontiers. But their success will depend on our ability to dehype the technology so that we can have a meaningful discussion about how the benefits will be shared by all.

There are 1.25 million car-related deaths worldwide, and most of us spend around 200 hours behind the wheel every year. Robots could give us back that time, while being safer, greener, and empowering to millions of people who currently can’t drive.

Speaking of empowering, one in four people are disabled by the time they retire, and one quarter of the world population will be above 60 by the time I turn 60. Advancements in robotic prosthetics, exoskeletons, medical robotics, and robot helpers for the home will enable us to remain independent for longer.


The UK aims to catch up on its 14% productivity gap accumulated after the recession, and do more, with less. Collaborative robots, or cobots for short, are being designed to work alongside humans in SMEs, and are easy to program in a human-centric way. Productivity is also key if we are to feed over 10 billion people by 2050. Precision agriculture could help increase yields, while decreasing water usage and pesticides.

Furthermore, robots will allow us to explore, monitor, and act in areas that are typically hard to access under water, on land, in the sky, and even space. These are uncharted territories with a vast playground for discovery.

This potential is what drives many of us to work in robotics.

In my own research on swarm engineering, I aim to design systems that work in large numbers (greater than 1,000) and at small scales (smaller than 1cm). I’ve designed algorithms for swarms of flying robots that could create communication networks in disaster areas. I’ve taken inspiration from ants, and their ability to form trails to your picnic table, to design new ways to deploy hundreds of robots to one day search and monitor the environment, and I’m now focused on understanding how we can make trillions of nanoparticles that work together to fight cancer.

Like most roboticists, I believe my work could have a positive impact on society, yet sometimes my work is not portrayed that way.

A recent article in the media said: ‘Sabine Hauert wants to inject cancer patients with a trillion killer nanobots.’ They were talking about cancer-killing robots, but still… I’m sure you’ve come across similar headlines about nefarious uses of robots, and the inevitability of robots taking jobs, waging war, and leading to the apocalypse. While there are excellent journalists covering important issues in robotics, much of the recent coverage is driven by science fiction and the monetisation of clicks.

The way robotics is portrayed in the public matters. As part of the Royal Society’s working group on machine learning, we learned that only 9% of the UK population knows the term ‘machine learning’, although they know of applications of the technology such as autonomous cars and voice assistants on their mobile phones. Of those who had heard of applications of machine learning, 75% had heard of it from mainstream media, and 21% from entertainment. Headlines and popular science fiction are largely driving the public’s understanding of a technology that will affect their daily lives. This could influence policy, the diversity of students who decide to enter STEM fields, the translational potential of the technology, and ultimately its uptake.

It’s clear therefore that we need to do a better job de-hyping robotics and showing the potential of the technology. That’s what we do at Robohub – a non-profit that I run to help roboticists communicate with the public about their work. But we also need to hear from the public, about what they would like to see the technology do for them. What are the helpers they need in their daily lives? How could it make their work, or life better? And what are their concerns?

The Royal Society’s report, for example, showed that the public worries about AIs not being trustworthy, replacing them, hindering their personal experience, or harming them. They also worry that the benefits of the technology will not be shared by all. These are real issues we can only address if we ground the discussion in reality.

robonaut-machines-dexterous-humanoid-39644 pexels

Many of the lofty goals I mention above are years away; robots are still hard to design, and only good at very specific tasks. This means we can shape the direction of the field going forward. But if we don’t have a meaningful discussion about this now, the full potential of the technology may be hindered, and that wouldn’t benefit anyone.

You can follow @sabinehauert on Twitter, or visit the Hauert Lab or Robohub websites for more information.

This article is taken from the forthcoming summer issue of Society Now

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