Transdisciplinary Academics Imagine Our Future With Robots in This Edition of Human+ Tech Talks

See the full Human+ Tech Talk seminar recording here.

“Our future with robots has not been written yet; it is still open.”

With the above statement, Dr Pat Treusch, our Human+ programme fellow kicked off the third edition of the Tech Talks seminar series on 11 October, 2022. The topic of discussion – The Future of Robots in Our Everyday Lives – was a blank canvas open to debate and reimagination by a panel of world-leading academics, computer scientists and researchers. 

The panel consisted of Dr Benjamin Cowan (UCD), Principal Investigator at ADAPT working in the space of speech and language technologies; Dr Conor McGinn (TCD), specialising in the field of social assistance robots and CEO of Akara Robotics; and Fiona McDermott, Research Fellow at the SFI Connect Research Centre, studying emerging network technologies and their socio-political impact. 

Dr Treusch outlined the key differences between humanoids and robots. “In a world where humanoids are often portrayed as hostile entities that may be out to steal our jobs, what kind of robots do we imagine being accepted in our everyday lives?”, she asked. Humanoids like Sophia are anticipated to take up the functions of nurses or maids, but the real question is if robots can really provide us the social assistance we need without threatening us. 

Dr Cowan further underlined the difference between the way humans and robots communicate. When humans converse, there are lots of things other than words that are doing the talking. Humans mindread using non-verbal communication cues such as hand gestures, head nods, preconceived notions/stereotypes about the person and other signals. But what happens when we replace one of the humans in such a setting with a robot? 

“Robots cannot interact the way humans do. They find it hard to pick a conversation point to interject on. So, we need to be more honest about the capabilities of robots, which begs the question: should we make robots more like humans or is it better to portray them just as tools?”. Dr Cowan’s presentation concluded with the need for more honesty in robotics and less human-like portrayal of robots, to avoid unrealistic expectations and the uncanny valley effect. 

Fiona McDermott, explored the topic from an engineering, architecture and urban design perspective. Fiona studies emerging technologies from an interdisciplinary lens, researching the environmental, spatial and socio-cultural impacts of such inventions. Talking about autonomous vehicles as futuristic robots that have been persistent in our imaginary for decades, she asked how much autonomy  autonomous vehicles should have. 

“Will complete autonomy lead to the absence of human beings? How will such technology affect the function of cities where there are no humans?. Further illustrating experiments where autonomous vehicles have been tricked and outsmarted, she drove attendees to question the real limitations that such technology presents. 

Dr Conor McGinn, who has spent a large part of his life designing, developing and evaluating social service robots, approached the topic from purely a robotics and scientific perspective. Dr McGinn expressed his enthusiasm about the application of robotics for previously unfeasible tasks such as cleaning deep oceans, exploring outer space, responding to health emergencies, among others. However, he also highlighted the current gap between what we expect robots to do and what robots can actually achieve, exemplified by Elon Musk’s Optimus, for instance. Drawing from his own research, he then painted a picture of the way robots should be reimagined. The recent robot his team created – Stevie – is a singing robot that’s providing social support in nursing homes. Another of their recent inventions is a robot that can disinfect hospital rooms much quicker than humans. These are the kinds of robots that are realistically possible to create and that can aid humans in everyday life positively, he reiterated. 

Thereafter, the panel discussed a number of thought-provoking questions from the audience: Can human-robot collaboration be a reality? What kinds of non-verbal cues might robots be capable of understanding?  Can we recognise the human-robot relationship as a master-slave relationship or is this an outdated concept? What kind of impact does the gendering of robots have on our perception of them?

For further information on Pat Treusch’s Human+ Project, continue reading.

The next Human+ tech talk will explore the trustworthiness of artificial intelligence technologies with an expert and transdisciplinary panel including our Human+ fellow, Dr Nicola Palladino. 

Know More

Want to attend the other Human+ Tech Talks in this series? See the full schedule below.   

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Human+ is a five-year international, inter- and transdisciplinary fellowship programme conducting groundbreaking research addressing human-centric approaches to technology development. Human+ is led by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute and ADAPT, the Science Foundation Ireland Centre for Digital Content Innovation, at Trinity College Dublin. The HUMAN+ project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 945447. The programme is further supported by unique relationships with HUMAN+ Enterprise Partners.

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