Credit: Toby Oxborrow/Flickr

Scientists call for restrictions to the robotics revolution

The Foundation for Responsible Robotics has just launched in London to consider the impact of robots in society.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 25 Apr 2016

We’ve all joked about it – the likelihood of robots taking over not just our jobs, but possibly the entire world while they’re at it – but the automation of our everyday lives has been rapid enough to prompt a group of 25 tech scholars to create Foundation for Responsible Robotics (FRR) to look into the use of robots and what it means for humankind.

The term ‘robotics revolution’ might be enough to instil fear into any avid fans of The Terminator, The Matrix or I, Robot, but both governments and businesses have been increasingly looking towards robotics as the potential economic driver of choice.

It’s all too easy to whip up a bit of a frenzy when it comes to the unknown – particularly in technological developments, but when the likes of Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak and the Bank of England’s chief economist say we need some ground rules and fast, it might be worth applying the brakes.

The launch of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics in London has then come at a good time. Its core purpose will be to encourage decision-makers to consider the impact of this high-potential technology on society – from the potential for mass unemployment to human rights violations.

Noel Sharkey, robotics professor at Sheffield University and chairman of the foundation, claims we're 'rushing headlong into the robotics revolution without consideration for the many unforeseen problems lying around the corner'.

Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, recently warned that 15 million jobs are at risk from the rise of artificial intelligence – half the total in the UK, with unskilled and administrative roles most at risk. As the rise of technology develops however, it is ‘hollowing out’ more and more of the labour market. ‘If the option of skilling up is no longer available, this increases the risk of large scale un- or under-employment,’ he said. ‘The wage premium for those occupying skilled positions could explode, further widening wage differentials.’

As the role of robotics develops – not just industrial tools for factories, but increasing numbers of service robots (12 million now compared with 1.5 million industrial robots according to Sharkey), humans are apparently at risk of getting quite attached. To the robots that is.

Co-founder of the foundation, Johanna Seibt of Aarhus University in Denmark, believes robots change ‘how we are as human beings’, to the extent where anthropomorphism leads to people protecting their ‘favourite’ robots when threatened – even at the risk of other humans. She said, ‘soldiers are prepared to risk their lives to protect a robot.’ Which may sound like the plot of a new sci-fi film, but is one of the concerns the foundation wants to address.

The issue of course is the lack of research into the longer-term effects of exposure to social robots, which will form part of the foundation’s role. As governments rush ahead, primarily focused on the economic benefits, it does seem sensible to consider the other repercussions of such technological development – bringing AI into warfare is just one of the more serious points that needs further consideration.

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