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Machines Like Us

The potential future impact of robots on society

Sunday, 07 December 2008

Spanish researchers have carried out a study looking into the potential future impact of robots on society. Their conclusions show that the enormous automation capacity of robots and their ability to interact with humans will cause a technological imbalance over the next 12 years between those who have them and those who do not.

“Just as we depend upon mobile phones and cars in our daily lives today, the next 15 years will see mass hybridisation between humans and robots,” predicts Antonio López Peláez, a professor of sociology at Spain’s National Distance Learning University, UNED, and co-author of the study on the future social impact of robots, jointly carried out with the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies.

International experts working on inventing and adapting cutting edge robots for practical use were interviewed during the study, in order to find out by when we will be regularly using the models they are currently designing. All agreed on 2020 as a technological inflection point, because by then robots “will be able to see, act, speak, manage natural language and have intelligence, and our relationship with them will have become more constant and commonplace”, said López Peláez. This will follow a revolution in robotics after which they will no longer be sophisticated machines, but tools to be used on a daily basis, helping us with a large number of work and social activities.

What will robots do for us?

Automation currently exists in areas such as water management or unmanned aircraft that fly and shoot missiles, but whole new areas of robot use will open up in future.

One such use will be in a medical context, as exoskeletons to help disabled people move, helping to make them less dependent on others.

Even more significant will be the insertion of robots into our bodies, such as intelligent implants in the brain, which will improve our rational thought, and nanorobots to be released into the blood to clean our arteries.

Another important role will be the replacement of people working in the areas of security, surveillance or defence. According to Professor López Peláez, it is predicted that 40% of armies will be automated with robot soldiers by 2020 “just as a car factory is today, which will result in less human deaths during violent conflicts”.