DECEMBER 9, 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 hybridization 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 society 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," says López Peláez. The researchers say 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.
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 the future.
One such use is expected in a medical context, as exoskeletons to help disabled people move, helping to make them less dependent on others.
Even more significant, says the study, 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 defense. According to 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."
Robots are expected to be incorporated into both domestic and industrial life, helping to clean our houses, milking cows on farms, and working 24 hours per day in factories without resting, with a yield equivalent to three day shifts. In addition, replacing human labor with robots will prevent workers from being exposed to dangerous, stressful or unhealthy environments, thus reducing labor-related risks.
The study also looks at the possible repercussions of incorporating robots into society. On one hand, just as with uneven access to technologies such as the Internet, they will open up a new gulf, this time a robotic one. The team foresees this resulting in a cultural distinction being drawn between companies and people who can afford to buy robots to help with their activities -- and those who cannot. The robotic gulf will also favor more industrialized societies, potentially widening the gap between first- and third-world nations, or providing greater possibilities for success in logistics and war. On the other hand, López Peláez says that "just as many Japanese people today believe that their robots are alive, we will attribute human characteristics to robots, and we may even define robots' rights."
Another concern is that if robots are to carry out so many labor tasks and replace human labor, unemployment may rise just as it did in the 19th century with the invention of textile machines. The robotics experts interviewed for this study claim that factories with high robot use will retrain workers to work in other, though possibly more poorly paid, areas. However, they also point out that the situation will balance out with the development of new services involved in the design and maintenance of the robots.