Published in Dagens Industri (Sweden) April 8, 2014
I am completely fascinated by robots now stepping out of the factories and entering into schools, hospitals and elderly care clinics. These service bots, with sensors as senses, seem to be better at being human than humans themselves. Tests conducted by Lego Learning Institute conclude that children who have temporary robot parents consider their new tin friends to be more attentive, patient and better listeners. In similar experiments in elderly care, patients feel better and less lonely thanks to robots. South Korean kids learn better English from robots and Google’s self-driving cars have soon been driving 500,000 km without any major accident.
In the way industrial large-scale computers became everyone’s mobile phone, we are getting closer to a future where robots are not only replacing industrial blue-collar work, but also becoming frequent in the service industry. In 2013, there were around 1.2M robots in the world. According to The Economist, sales of service robots are increasing with 25-30% per year, whereas sales of industrial robots have stagnated at a 5% yoy growth.
And development is fast. Google’s investment in eight robot companies during 2013 is fascinating. I can’t stop watching the Cheeta video, a cat-like robot running faster than Usain Bolt. In South Korea, 60% of preschools have access to robots as teachers and in Japan, an exoskeleton suit is tested to help elderly care for themselves. Soft toys, as the robot seal Paro, are used to keep elderly company and mobile screens on robotlike bodies are teleporting doctors to private homes.
The experiments in health care, schools and elderly care are delivering better result the more human the robots appear. Human looks and behavior increase trust from children as well as for elderly. They are offered a 2.0 version of parents or care personnel, exceeding human shortcomings with infinite encouragement, directional information and patience. Our faith in robots may seem strange, but consumers are gradually becoming more confident to trust machine advice, thanks to innovations such as iPhone’s Siri and cars automatically executing parallel parking.
Ray Kurtzweil, Google’s expert on artificial intelligence, claims that within 15 years, robots will be smarter than humans – even measuring EQ. Before that happens, it is about time for us to define the services we would like robots to take over, services previously impossible to execute and perhaps most importantly, services we for ethic reasons should keep robot hands away from. Because if Mr. Kurtweil is right, which he has proven to be many times before, robots will soon manage everything humans can do. Only better.