Robots have come to populate factories, warehouses, war zones, and even our homes. From the Terminator films to Steven Spielberg’s A.I. or the TV series Westworld, science fiction is full of robots that are virtually indistinguishable from humans. However, none of the robots currently in widespread use look like, or behave like, a human being. Soft robotics and AI might be about to change all that.
Soft robots are made of malleable materials such as silicone and other polymers instead of the usual metal. These materials give robots organic characteristics, replicating the way muscles work and allowing robots to move and perform human-like tasks that are impossible for old-school metallic machines. Given the flexibility of the materials, robots can also easily be designed to look more like a person.
Another potential feature of the robots of the future is the ability to self-repair, emulating the human body’s ability to heal. Current research is mainly looking at improving the materials used and devising ways for them to avoid chemical reactions, but in the UK, researchers at Cambridge University are currently working on developing self-healing materials. They are using machine learning in a project that will potentially create the next generation of soft robotics. There are multiple possible use cases in healthcare, manufacturing, or defense, where an army of self-repairing robots would be incredibly useful.
Will robots also feel and behave like humans?
Innovations around making robot bodies more human-like are matched by developments happening in robot brains. Advances in AI are making it possible for machines to identify sentiments such as happiness and sadness in speech. Research is also going into developing computer vision technologies that can identify emotions by analyzing facial expressions. Once these challenges have been overcome, the next step will be for machines to experience the emotions that they identify. That will be even more challenging, and a breakthrough allowing robots to experience human emotions or physical pain is many years away.
In other words, robots are, at some point in the future, likely to gain enough “emotional intelligence” to identify human emotions, but it will be more difficult, if not impossible, for them ever to feel those emotions themselves. Some would argue that it should never happen. The usefulness of a robot that can carry boxes around a warehouse and self-repair if it’s damaged is clear. It is not obvious what the use case for a robot with feelings would be, even if many human inventions did not come from a utilitarian drive. There are also ethical challenges, not to mention the possibility of humanity being taken over by machines.
The emotional vacuum cleaner
Despite the long history of robots and how far they have come, it’s impossible to avoid the feeling that we aren’t yet living the future we were promised.
The most common robot that most people will interact with on their daily lives is still a vacuum cleaner shaped like a disc. In factories and warehouses, human staff work alongside robots that are incredibly good at performing repetitive and dangerous tasks but do not look or behave like humans.
If life catches up with fiction and robots and people become indistinguishable one day, societies will have an ethical conundrum on their hands. What rights should be given to non-human creatures that look and feel like us? However, for the time being, you can accidentally step on your disc-shaped robotic vacuum cleaner without guilt. It won’t feel a thing.