Aquila kids’ magazine, January 2015.
What will robots look like in the future? We probably won’t see robots that look like people walking down the street any time soon, as much fun as that may sound. Robots will probably continue to look quite mechanical, but there’s good chance they will play an increasingly bigger part in daily life. Robots, or robotic devices, are already being used for a lot of things: cleaning floors, driving simple trains, making complex calculations. A computer brain has already won “Jeopardy!”, and smartphone users can ask questions to digital assistant “Siri”, who understands what they are saying.
So maybe the more interesting question is: Will robots ever be smarter than us? The answer to that is that yes, one day they probably will be. Robots don’t have to spend a long time to learn things, and they can remember a lot more than we can too, so machines may soon be able to use their bigger brains to work things out quicker.
The moment when machines become smarter than humans is called the “Singularity”. Scientists expect this to be a major moment in human history, possibly changing everything. There are plenty of films and books that speculate on what this may look like too. Many take a bleak view, where the smarter robots look at us the way we look at dogs: they’re cute, but also a bit stupid. Some scientists fear the robots could take over the world, but most take a more optimistic view: humans will benefit from robotic super-intelligence and do fantastic things. This could even mean copying the human brain and have it live on in a machine, creating some kind of eternal life.
“Everything that civilisation has to offer is a product of human intelligence,” scientist Stephen Hawking recently wrote in “The Independent”. He thinks it’s impossible to predict exactly what we’ll achieve once we create artificial intelligence, but it could mean ending war, disease, and poverty. In any case, it would change the world: “Success in creating artificial intelligence would be the biggest event in human history.”
Whether the Singularity sounds like it would be great, or just scary, chances are it won’t happen for a long time yet. We need to improve computers many times over first, both in terms of hardware and software, to make them run a lot faster and better. Another problem for the scientists working on creating clever robots is that it’s really tricky to teach a machine everything a person knows. Not only do you need to teach the robot millions of facts, but also lots of things we take for granted, such as how to lift our feet to walk. Then the robot has use all this programmed knowledge to come up with brand new ideas, something people do that all the time – but a machine can’t really do things it’s not programmed to do. And if a robot truly going to be smarter than us, it needs to learn about feelings and humour. That may be the hardest thing of all, as a joke is never funny once you’ve had to explain it.
So for now, scientists are working on making robots who can do things that humans either can’t do, or don’t want to do. Going into space is one thing robots could do instead of us, as they don’t need life support. Robots are already making good hospital assistants, distributing trays of food or fresh linens, freeing up the human nurses to do the more complicated things. While robots struggle to understand unpredictable human behaviour, like working on problems by testing out a guess, they are pretty good at working in laboratories and factories. This is because robots are great at doing very specific things over and over again, just the way they’ve been told, which is frankly something that can get a bit boring after a while. Maybe scientists will come up with a household robot to do the dishes and cut the grass soon? This day may not be too far away, as self-driving cars have already become reality: test cars have successfully driven thousands of miles without accident, relying on sensors to move safely in traffic. That’s one clever robot.
“My generation believed the world would be overrun by robots by the year 2014,” James Dyson, the British inventor who founded the Dyson company, told “BBC News”. Dyson is now investing £5 million in a robotics lab at Imperial College in London, hoping to develop robots that can understand more about what’s going on around them. “We now have the mechanical and electronic capabilities, but robots still lack understanding – seeing and thinking in the way we do,” said Dyson. “Mastering this will make our lives easier.” But first, robots need to learn how to deal with change, instead of just doing what they have been told. Until this happens, humans will remain the smarter ones, because being clever isn’t just about knowing things. What’s just as important is knowing how to use your knowledge, and being able to adapt when the world around you changes.