"Oh poor of us, the robots will take our jobs", "I don't like robots, they are just evil machines that want to terminate us all!", "Robotics ensure a strong economic growth, employement and social cohesion!" "I'm very interested in robotics, especially if it prevent me to do the washing and the cleaning."
Working in robotics, these are the kind of sentences one can hear or read very often. It's quite amazing: from the great and serious international media to small talks at the pub, the same topics are raised over and over. So I began to wonder about this and I came to think about robotics and imagination.
Then I learned about this guy : Victor Scardigli. It's a French socio-anthropologist who has studied this “technologies’ imagination” and how technologies are perceived. He has highlighted redundant topics appearing in speeches and cultural productions: Power, Knowledge, Memory, Social Justice, Social ties, Economic prosperity and finally Space and Time. That composes a typology, divided in “miracles”, which correspond to speeches where the technology is linked to progress, and “wounds” where it has negative impacts on the society.
I wanted to check it out, so during my internship at Aldebaran, I have studied all the articles, tweets, posts, comments and so on about the company and its robots for three months. And it was true ! These topics were actually present.
So let me introduce each one, starting with the least of it (in number of appearance).
Social Justice (4%)
Technologies are often seen as a way to improve or worsen equal opportunities.
For example, as we know, NAO is helping children in specialized education and helps to overcome some disabilities such as autism.
However, a robot is an expensive object linked to the idea of wealth. Therefore it’s increasing the gap between the rich and the poor.
Knowledge refers to technologies that allow the users to develop a kind of “collective intelligence” or, on the contrary, that contribute to a global lack of culture.
For instance, on the positive side, a robot can allow a human to stay informed and to access to a huge knowledge base at any time, from any place. This is helping the user to improve his own knowledge.
On the contrary, some people will think that it will make humans more and more stupid because we will get used to be assisted by robots.
Space and Time (6%)
This idea refers to the ubiquity myth, that is to say that through the technology, the user can be everywhere at once. So on the positive side, the robot can sometime avoid travels and allow to save time. In the same way, it can be a substitute when the travel is not possible because of an external factor, such as a disease. For instance, have you already heard about this wonderful project named Avatar kids? It allows hospitalized children to stay connected to their classroom. In this way, they can attend classes but above all, they do not lose the social relation with their friend. That helps a lot to prevent depression and isolation of the child.
Oh, surprise! I haven't found any quote or fears in my datas about this topic. But normally, the bad side concerning space and time refers to a "sitting humanity": thanks to robot we can be lazy and stay in our sofa all day long! Yes it's a bad side, we will get fat and finished with a square bottom.
With the cloud technologies, robots are seen as the "Keeper of the humanity's memory". Indeed, they can save and memorize datas about their owner, the family and the environment. Then, they can access to this memory "on demand" and use it to improve the relevance of their answers or reactions. Awesome!
But this come with a strong negative side which deals with big topics such as privacy and the fear of the "Big Brother", piracy and the potential loses of data.
By the way, did you know that the notion of "Big Brother is watching you" is not really recent? Actually, it's really close to the ring of Gyges myth, from the second book of Plato's Republic (around 380 BC). This ring allows its holder to see without been seen. (Fortunately it has been destroyed in the fire of the Mount Doom... oh no, wait: that's not the same ring.)
Social ties (18%)
One of my favorite manga is called "Chobit". It deals with a world where robots look like pretty humans and are integrated in the society. It's sound like the "Real Human" TV series, but it's more focused on social relation between humans and robots. I found the manga interesting because it shows different kinds of situations: a husband neglecting his wife for its robot, a guy that fell in love with it and marry it...
In these situation, the robot hogs all the social interaction, replaces existing relationship and increases the "social vacuum".
On the contrary, the robot is seen as a solution to alleviate loneliness. For instance, NAO is used in retirement homes to help the caregivers and to fight against isolation. This is what ZORA is about! If you don't know a thing about this great project, you have to read this article!
I have to add my own vision of this topic. To me, NAO has increased the number and the quality of my relationships. Saying that, I think about all the interesting peoples I have met during NAO's or robotics' events, all the great projects that have been made around this robots, but also all the people that want to speak about what they are experiencing when I showcase the robot for Hoomano.
Thanks to NAO, I have met some of my very good friends and even my actual boss. So, in my opinion, robots help to bring together humans.
The power topic is the most represented one in cultural productions: the robot rising against the mankind as in Terminator or I'Robot.
I was quite surprised to see that it's one of the most important fear. A robot killing a man or turning him into a slave... Isn't it like believing in ghosts or vampires?
More seriously, robots are far away from the Strong A.I. giving them the ability of thinking: "Hey! Let's kill a man!". They are just doing what we program them for.
In opposition to this fear is the idea that the robot will free us from arduous or harmful activities. Comparing to the negative side, this is already happening.
Economic prosperity (31%)
The economic prosperity is the main topic among my datas! Some deals with the idea of "robots taking our jobs". Others says that it will end the economic crisis and brought a lot of employment.
Well. I just want to remind you this: with the invention of the car, a lot of people lost their jobs indeed. We didn't need marshals and horse carers anymore. But, beside that, a huge mount of new jobs have been created. Professions we could not imagine at that time. I think it's the same for robotics. Professions appears and disappears al the time. But I think that robotics will bring a range of jobs that are still unthinkable for now.
Understanding that the topics raised about robotics are the same that our ancestors raised about the printing press made us keep things in perspective. There will always been good and bad things in change.
Moreover, my research enlightened that, these fears and hopes have a strong link with the cultural references. And we can notice that, with Hal, Cylon, Gort or Daleks, the trend was more in favour of killer robots. But in this past decade, things have begun to change. From peripheral characters, friendly robots are now main characters, helping humans to accomplish big missions. It's the case with Wall-E, NDR-114, or more recently Chappie and Baymax.
So as a robotics enthusiast, I hope that people will understand that "robot" doesn't mean Terminator, and see the opportunities offered by this great technology.