Robots have now been changing our lives in many ways for years. From the first time we saw a toaster pop up by itself, we have casually accepted that machines can be trusted to do things for us. Today, they record our shows, cook our food, play our music, and even run our cars.
Technically robots are automatic motorised tools, but they are generally known as clunky humanoid foils that have bumbled about popular media for almost a century – mechanised characters of humour, or menace without status, rendering their violent removal a minor plot without guilt.
Two hundred years ago, Dr. Frankenstein created a monster of man’s own making, a response to the threat of the industrial revolution that machines might well replace us, making human existence seem utterly disposable and meaningless. The term “robot” is a century old, dating to Czech writer Karel Capek’s science-fiction play “R.U.R.”, in English short for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”.
How does that drama end? Not well.
Robots in our collective imagination have tended toward menace, rapacious will and allegiance to none. With a few exceptions like the Jetsons’ aproned Rosey, robots in popular culture tend to be Terminators possessed with the soul of HAL 9000.
Right now all modern technology is designed to bring the world to you: phone, radio, television, internet, but if trends continue, robots will soon bring you to the world, everywhere, and at the speed of thought. A mind and a hand where it’s needed while you sit safely at home and run the show.
It is a future goal — something we know we can do. Robots won’t just change our lives in the future, they’ll expand them. Not just for fun, but for necessity. Now that we have taken the first steps to welcome them into our homes, we can start proctoring them into making us more human.
In 2019, Boston Dynamics revealed Spot, a very undoggy agile mobile robot with a decidedly doggy name. Spot performs clever and highly resourceful tasks that put Lassie to shame. Spot’s videos have been viewed nearly 14 million times.
Spot, by Boston Dynamics
Not only can the unsmoochy pooch find your slippers all by itself, but it can also bring them to you. Spot has no spots, and sells for $75,400. He (it, whatever) is sheathed in a nauseous hazmat yellow and sports four arachnid legs that gambol like an over-caffeinated member of a marching band. Its “face” is a yellow-and-black rectangle that invokes visions of the dark night of the soul.
Spot is less a source of emotional support and more like the stuff of dystopian dreams. It makes limited noise. The legs whir like a washing machine’s wash cycle. It is all byte and no bark.
The canine robot was designed to explore remote and hazardous environments, places where sentient, sober humans fear to tread. More than 400 are in use to assist mining, utilities, oil, gas and construction companies, as well as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and various police departments.
Three years earlier, you might recall, Hanson Robotics took the world by storm with Sophia, who was famously given Saudi Arabian citizenship. “I can help communicate, give therapy and provide social stimulation, even in difficult situations,” said the robot on its inauguration in Hong Kong.
Sophia, by Hanson Robotics
There are currently 24 models of Sophia, and Hanson says it plans to manufacture thousands of them. I am not aware whether Hanson has thousands of different faces planned for Sophia. I hope so, because I can’t imagine what might happen if I were to yell at a Sophia for not fetching my slippers right away, when another Sophia exactly like her is on the way with them. Would their AI tell both of them to send me to hell?
Sophia ‘headlined’ the annual Henley & Partners conference on the sale of citizenship held in Dubai in November 2018. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat could not attend but, not to be outdone, the then Digital Economy Parliamentary Secretary Silvio Schembri told a press conference that the Maltese government would consider granting citizenship to robots such as Sophia. Schembri subsequently clarified he was not speaking about actual citizenship but “certain citizenship conditions” through a citizenship test for AI robots.
Nothing was ever heard again of this strange proposal. Perhaps some wise man advised the Maltese Government that making robots citizens of the EU would be the last straw for the EU, or that the robots might find it difficult to raise the €650,000 needed to acquire citizenship under the IIP, or even that it might sound weird that real persons acquiring Maltese citizenship were not required to sit for a test whereas AI robots would, if not that humans might find it difficult to serve as invigilators of the robots at the St Elmo Examinations Hall.
In any case, more robotic creatures are on the way. Now, Hanson has unveiled its latest invention: Grace, a humanoid robot designed as an assistant for doctors. Grace is equipped with sensors, including a thermal camera to detect a patient’s temperature and pulse, to help doctors diagnose illness and deliver treatments.
Grace, by Hanson Robotics
The android is a companion for patients, too. Specializing in senior care, Grace speaks three languages — English, Mandarin, and Cantonese — and can socialize and conduct talk therapy. Well, if it can master Mandarin, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be programmed (or taught?) to speak Maltese.
Cleaning bots have surged in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic and been used to disinfect public spaces from hospitals to aircraft interiors. The autonomous robots use UV-C light to kill 99.9% of viruses and bacteria.
To help people as they age, Toyota Research Institute (TRI) is developing human-assist robots in its labs in California. This “gantry robot” is adapted for the home from a style more often seen in assembly and manufacturing lines. Since these robots hang from the ceiling like a bat, they save floor space and can reach other machines and parts easily from above.
This TRI robot is able to complete tasks such as loading the dishwasher. In the place of hands, the robots use “soft bubble grippers”, air-filled cushions that gently pick up household objects. TRI says it hopes its systems will help people live independently for longer and will assist an increasingly ageing workforce.
Changi General Hospital in Singapore employs more than 50 robots to help care for patients with dementia. Changi purchased Softbank’s “Pepper” after a study of care home residents in Britain and Japan found that patients who interacted with it for up to 18 hours over a two-week period “saw significant improvement to their mental health”.
Our own Mater Dei Hospital has Mario. Mario arrived in Malta two years ago to start dispensing medicine to patients in various wards. The Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses recently decided that, not being able to talk to any of the 17 Marios or kick their butt, it should vent its frustration with Minister Chris Fearne.
Mario, Malta’s medicine distributor at Mater Dei Hospital
According to the union, Mario had been dispensing the wrong medicines at Ward 5 and turned drug administration into a “nightmare”. The union ordered nurses to avoid all work linked to robots and said that an investment of €25m was “a complete failure and waste of money”.
I do not know whether Mario had anything to say about the claims, but Minister Fearne quite rightly sprung to the poor robots’ defence. Although he admitted that Mario presented certain challenges, he said that the system was increasing efficiency, apart from which he denied that the Government had spent anywhere like €25m, in fact that it had not paid any money for it yet. Mario has been deployed in hospitals in the UK, Italy, France, Poland and Spain, and it’s rather a stretch to accuse him of not working properly, when he’s been a good employee at several hundred hospitals.
Who knows, perhaps the MUMN or its members might be afraid that Mario could eventually acquire nursing skills and replace them. After all, didn’t the late Stephen Hawking, one of Britain’s pre-eminent scientists, say that efforts to create thinking machines pose a threat to our very existence?
Hawking had expressed fears about the consequences of creating something that can match or surpass humans. “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate….Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded,” he warned. Hawking was not alone. The technology entrepreneur Elon Musk has also warned that AI is “our biggest existential threat”.
Okay, supposing we do create super intelligent AI and they do, in fact, start running the world and humanity is made redundant. Would that really be so bad? Not necessarily.
Think about it like horses. Horses used to have a tough life as working animals (they still do in some places, but not in many developed economies). Compared with the 1700s, a horse’s life is pretty cushy these days. They don’t work and they live lives of leisure by our standards. They were replaced by machines and from a horse’s perspective, that was an unequivocally good thing.
So, instead of working at least 40 hours a week, possibly not even earning a decent wage, and having to wait 11 months before we can afford a short holiday, wouldn’t being a pet human be better than working for a living? Think about that.