Robots and possible future: why avoid the Frankenstein complex

05 Dec 2017
On 29 November, in Milan, Retex entertained some managers of the sector in a convivial environment on the topic of the possible future. We were together with Giorgio Metta, vice president of IIT (Italian Institute of Technology), an Italian excellence in global scientific research. Giorgio is an international authority in the field of robotics, and he is director of the iCub Facility Department. Here he directs the development of the iCub humanoid robot, the terminal of a project started in 2003 on the study of the mechanisms of human cognition, and today of R1, the first robot for domestic and professional applications. The possible future, indeed the certain future - but with some uncertainty concerning "when" - will see us share our time and our needs with robots. This delicate topic is an important part of a more general consideration on the relationship between humanity and automation in its most advanced aspects, such as artificial intelligence.  In some cases, the concern about the risks deriving from it assumes obsessive forms, fuelled also by ignorance of the real state of technology and the time needed to make evolved humanoids available and truly reliable. For what, above all? No later than a week ago, Elon Musk, founder of Paypal, shared a tweet with his 15 million followers. The message contained a video taken from a US information site showing a robot that was able to jump quickly and easily. The accompanying text is something more than explicit, it is lapidary: "We are Dead". In subsequent messages, Musk refers to it again writing: "This is nothing. In a few years this robot will move so fast that you will need a strobe light to locate it. Sweet dreams". And he goes on: "We have to regulate artificial intelligence and robots, as we do with food, with medicines, cars and airplanes. Risks for people require regulations". His fears were confirmed by 80% of the thousands of survey respondents. [embed][/embed] However, also the opinions of different people who know a thing or two about the subject tend to strengthen the emotionality on the subject. Martin Ford, in his "Rise of Robots" (awarded with the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award 2015) hypothesises the serious threat that robots will represent not only for manual work. They will put at risk even professionalism until now considered airtight in services, in commerce and in administration.  In short, it reminds us of the natural lack of trust of human beings towards robots that Isaac Asimov, in his most fortunate novels of the Robot Cycle, called "the Frankenstein complex". But there are also those who consider the phenomenon favourably, and those who react harshly to positions such as those assumed by Musk. For Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, all this "skepticism of the contrarians" reflects "a negative and somewhat irresponsible vision". For the International Federation of Robotics, robotics will be the main job creation engine in the world over the next five years. For many others, artificial intelligence, and robots in particular, will not replace people but will support them in the most repetitive functions and the most burdensome tasks. None of us can presume to know what will really happen. However, it is true that new technologies will inevitably have a social impact that cannot be exalted or exorcised, but seriously studied. The only certainty is that we will have to prepare ourselves for radical changes in our way of working, in our social relations and in satisfying our needs. After all, the unstoppable ageing of the population in Western cities will result in a reduction in the productive workforce and a growing demand for personal care services. From this point of view, android robotics will play a role of considerable importance. Humanoids will be part of our daily lives, giving assistance to the disabled and the elderly or responding to our requests at shopping centres or hotels (and Pepper is no longer a disruptive innovation). This technology is still in its infancy, and it will still take some time to create the problems that stirred Rick Deckard's life in Blade Runner. One thing is sure, however, and it is that roboethics are required to regulate risks or conflicts for the benefit of all.