Are robots going to replace humans?


Robots are often considered as automatic machines designed to perform few boring and repetitive jobs we don’t want to deal with. However, as robots become smarter and more sophisticated, they pose a real threat to most human jobs. Shall we worry?

In 2007 I decided to join ASP (Alta Scuola Politecnica) alongside my Master Degree in Industrial Design at Politecnico of Milan, an experience that has profoundly influenced my perspectives and professional path.

The mission of ASP is to provide society with high-profile graduates combining in-depth (vertical) disciplinary knowledge from their Laurea Magistrale programmes with interdisciplinary (horizontal) skills that are needed to work in a truly multidisciplinary environment. During my experience at ASP I had the chance to collaborate with a multidisciplinary team of talented individuals on a two-year long project whose goal was to explore killer applications for robotics in the domestic environment. From our joint effort we gained meaningful insights on where technology was going and conceptualised and designed Helios.

In this article I would like to share some of the key insights that emerged from the Helios project, alongside more recent thoughts on robotics and the role it might have in future societies.

What is a robot?

There are a lot of confusion and stereotypes around the topic, influenced by hollywood movies and media in general.
Dictionaries define a robot in many different ways but most scientists seems to agree on the following definition:

“A robot is a machine, especially one programmable by a computer, capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically.”

A robot is therefore characterised by three main elements.

First of all, a robots is a machine, meaning it is something artificial, not natural or organic, typically conceptualised and designed by humans. The word ‘machine’ also denotes robots as physical artefacts characterised by a hardware component.

Second, a robot is a computer, running some sort of software able to process information and elaborate data perceived by sensors.

Finally,a robot can perform tasks automatically, meaning without being controlled by outside entities, such as human beings. This is normally enabled by an artificial intelligence that allows this machine to sense the environment, assess situations and react accordingly (sense-think-act).

By adopting this definition we immediately realise how wide a range of products and solutions the word ‘robot’ can include. The common representation of robots as humanoids pictured in Hollywood movies or mechanical arms hustling behind cages in factories are just a small part of the robots spectrum.

Types of Robots

This ‘Robots matrix’ organises different categories of robots following two axis:

  • The vertical axis indicates the purpose of the robot, on one extreme functional, on the other emotional.
  • The horizontal axis represents instead it’s degree of human-likeness, in terms of aesthetic and overall form factor.
Image 1 – Robots matrix

From this matrix result 4 main categories of robots.

ROBOT ENTERTAINERS. On the top left are robot entertainers, robots created to support psychologically and emotionally human beings. Applications typically include those user groups that might suffer more from isolation and loneliness such as elderly, patients in hospitals, and  children. Their look is purposely machine like although they often perform movements or use ways of communication inspired by humans.

HUMANOIDS. On the top right corner are humanoids, robots shaped to resemble and act like human beings, typically are created to support and even replace humans in doing what we do best: emotional work. Good example of this category are Sophia, the conversational robot developed by Hanson robotics, the sexbots by Realbotix, or the numerous androids developed in Japan.

SPECIALISED ROBOTS. On the lower left of the matrix are “specialised robots” created to perform a single or small amount of tasks in a very efficient and precise fashion. A good example of this category is Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner that was perhaps the first domestic robot to reach popularity and success, or assembly line robots that tirelessly perform the task they were programmed for in today’s factories.

ROBOT SERVANTS. On the lower right are the so called ‘robot servants’, robots with more sophisticated motion capabilities, typically modelled after organic beings such as humans and animals, whose goal is to serve humans in accomplishing a variety of tasks. It was a servant the first known robot in human history, the chahakobi ningyō, or Japanese tea doll, shaped after a woman and able to autonomously walk from one side of a table to the other serving tea to the diners.

Are robots going to replace human beings?

Based on the above reasoning, it looks like robots are actually designed to replace humans in the first place, and with advancements in technology they will eventually be able to replace humans at most tasks and roles. This however does not mean that in the future humans will be relegated by robots to the role of useless creatures or even extinguished as a species because of their dominance. To understand why, we shall adopt a wider view and consider robots as part of the bigger category they belong to: tehcnology

“Is technology going to replace humans?”

By zooming out on the ‘Robots matrix’, a new one emerges: the ‘Technology Matrix’. This matrix organises existing technologies following two axis:

  • The horizontal axis indicates whether technology enhances or replaces human skills and capabilities.
  • The vertical axis indicates the level of proximity between technology and the human body.

From this matrix result 4 main categories of technology.

Image 2 – Technologies matrix

TRADITIONAL TECH. On the top left are all ‘traditional technologies’ such as transportation, telecommunications and so on. These are technologies that enhance our ability to move around places quickly and efficiently, to communicate with people on the other side of the globe in real time, to make complex mathematical calculations almost instantaneously.

ROBOTS. On the top right we have robots, in all their forms. Autonomous machines created to replace humans at accomplishing specific tasks. Robots are a physically embodied artificial intelligence. Their unique capability to move in space and act on the physical world made them the first type of technology to replace certain types of human labour.

SUPER-HUMANS. On the lower left are wearable or implantable technologies designed to enhance human capabilities. These innovations will turn the lucky ones who can afford them into ‘super-humans’ with for instance enhanced brain performance, ability to read others emotions and easily manipulate them,  or even increased physical abilities.  This technology category is facing ethical considerations as its development will likely increase even further the gap between the rich and poor.

BIONICS. On the lower right are those technologies that replaces human capabilities and are close to the human bod. These technologies typically target people with disabilities that need to recover  basic body functions. Good examples are bionic prosthesis such as an artificial arm directly controlled by a person’s brain, or a hearing aid. Down below are implantable devices implanted within the human body partially, like cochlear implants, or fully, like pacemakers.

“Humans and technology will merge into one single cohesive entity, whose constituting parts will be fluid and indistinguishable.”

Technology in its development has proven to have a dual role: one meant to replace us, the other meant to elevate us. The initial high cost of enhancing technologies will likely further increase the advantage of few wealthy over the rest of humanity but eventually,  humans and technology will merge into one single cohesive entity, whose constituting parts will be fluid and indistinguishable.