2017 in review: the year the robots got smart

Bot life: Global spending on robotics is expected to exceed $135 billion by 2019.

Should we be excited or afraid of advances in AI and robotics? This year, systems gained the ability to teach themselves skills and anticipate the future — one robot even gained citizenship.

Sophia has pale skin, brown eyes, and a pretty good sense of humour. She is a citizen of Saudi Arabia. She wants to help people “lead a better life” by designing “smarter homes” and building the cities of the future. She is also a robot.

In October this year she became the first robot to be awarded citizenship of a country. She uses artificial intelligence (AI) to respond to questions and understand human emotions. When an interviewer asked if she would eventually abuse this power, she tried to play down these “Hollywood” fears: “If you're nice to me I'll be nice to you.”

Sophia is the perfect example of two rapidly advancing trends in technology: robotics and AI. They are related, but separate — and both passed some important milestones this year.

Robotics refers to hardware: the physical machines that can do stuff in the real world.

These are increasingly modeled on nature. There is Sophia’s humanoid face, for one thing. But other robots are designed to mimic nature for more practical purposes: take Festo’s OctopusGripper, which uses a tentacle with “suction cups” to hold objects securely. Or SpotMini, which borrows its “quadrupedal locomotion” (ability to move on four legs) from dogs.

The boss of Boston Dynamics, which created SpotMini, predicts that robotics will soon “be bigger than the internet”. He explained that it “is not just restricted to information, it is everything”.

Meanwhile, AI — the software behind smart robots, Amazon’s Alexa, and your Facebook feed — is also advancing quickly. This year, Google’s DeepMind developed an AI program that was able to teach itself for the first time. Last week it taught itself to play chess in four hours before beating the previous chess champion program.

AI is already being used in all sorts of industries: including driving, policing, space exploration, journalism, and healthcare.

In fact, this year, the McKinsey Global Institute predicted that by 2030, a third of Americans will have to switch jobs thanks to AI.

Do we need to worry?

I, robot

Yes, say some. And we should not just worry about our future careers — we should worry about our futures, full stop. As AI teaches itself skills, it is becoming too complex for its creators to understand. Sometimes it makes decisions for reasons they cannot follow. If we are not careful, we will put our entire species at risk.

This makes a good plot for a movie, but it is not reality, respond others. Humans still have the power to design and control AI programs, including building checks and fail-safes that prevent them from harming humans. As for jobs, there is no need to panic. The opportunities which technology creates will replace any jobs that are lost.

You Decide

  1. Will advanced robotics be good for the world?
  2. Should AI robots like Sophia be considered people?

Activities

  1. Think of a problem that you face in your everyday life, or (if you’re feeling ambitious) that the planet faces. Design a robot to help solve that problem.
  2. Choose an industry in which you would like to work. Research how robotics and AI might affect it, and then write a short report answering the following questions: what advances have already been made? What advances could be made in the future? Are there any jobs in this industry which cannot be filled by computers, and why?

Some People Say...

“I visualise a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans, and I’m rooting for the machines.”

Claude Shannon

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
According to the 2017 World Robotics Report (by the International Federation of Robotics), there were around 1.8 million industrial robots in use at the end of last year. By 2020, it is predicted that there will be over three million. So far, most of these are in manufacturing motor vehicles, electronics and metals. Robots which interact with customers directly are far less common.
What do we not know?
The effect that robotics and AI will have on job markets. Some point out that when technology has made jobs obsolete in the past, it has created jobs in other industries, and so the effect is cancelled out. Others say that this will not happen with robotics and AI, as they will affect many different industries. Nor can we be sure how intelligent AI will eventually become.

Word Watch

Humanoid
Sophia’s face is based on Audrey Hepburn’s. Her creator, David Hanson, once worked as a filmmaker for Disney. He explains that robots must have some level of “social responsivity and aesthetic refinement” to appeal to humans. In other words, they must look and act a bit like people.
Festo
A German robotics company which has based several machines on animals, including kangaroos, elephants and butterflies.
Boston Dynamics
A company which used to belong to Google, before being sold to Japan’s SoftBank Group this year. Its original robot dog was designed to be used by the US military, but this has not happened yet.
Alexa
Amazon’s AI assistant, most commonly found in Echo speakers.
Facebook feed
Facebook’s AI looks at the friends, topics and companies you seem to like best in order to decide what appears in your newsfeed. Earlier this year, the company also introduced AI systems which look out for suicidal or extremist users.
DeepMind
A company owned by Google and based in London. This year, AlphaGo Zero began to teach itself to play games without human intervention.

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