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

24 October 2022

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

With the above statement, Dr Pat Treusch, one of the Human+ programme fellows kicked off the third edition of the Tech Talks seminar series on 11 October, 2022. Human+ Tech Talks are a series of seminars led by Human+, an international and interdisciplinary fellowship programme led by the SFI ADAPT Centre for AI-Driven Digital Content Technology, and the Trinity Long Room Arts and Humanities Research Institute.  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 Tech Talk began with a brief introduction of the panel by Prof Vincent Wade, Director of the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) ADAPT Research Centre for AI-driven digital content technology. The panel consisted of Dr Benjamin Cowan, Associate Professor at University College Dublin (UCD) and Principal Investigator at ADAPT; Dr Conor McGinn, Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), and CEO and Co-Founder of Akara Robotics; and Fiona McDermott, Research Fellow at the SFI Connect Research Centre.

Dr Treusch kickstarted the discussion by introducing the topic briefly. She 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 Treusch’s talk was followed by an insightful presentation by Dr Benjamin Cowan, Associate Professor at UCD, whose research lies at the juncture of psychology, human-computer interaction and communication systems. 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?”, he asked. His 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. 

Subsequently, Fiona McDermott, researcher at the SFI Connect Centre in TCD took over the discussion 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 raised the question of how much autonomy should autonomous vehicles 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?”, she asked. 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, Co-Founder and CEO of Akara Robotics, 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 floor was open to 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? The panel answered a host of such thought-provoking questions. The seminar then concluded with a whole new way for us to reimagine robots – not as entities that are out to harm us, but instead, as tools that can help ease our everyday lives, making the world a better place for humanity in the future.