Robots in our midst
Can robots be creative? Feel? Love? And why do so many of them operate incognito?
Technology is changing fast and robots will place an increasing role in our future, says Christopher Lindinger, Director of Research & Innovation at the Ars Electronica Futurelab.
Sucuk und Bratwurst
Erwin Rachbauer and Hertha Hurnaus
27 December, 2019
The Ars Electronica Futurelab in Linz is a studio and lab that melds technology, society and art in a constructive way. Highly regarded throughout Europe by both creative talents and managers, it is consulted by companies for its insights into questions about the future. Audi Magazine caught up with its Director of Research & Innovation, Christopher Lindinger, for his thoughts on what lies around the corner.
Audi Magazine (AM) – you have been researching the social implications of new technologies for over 20 years. What’s your definition of a robot?
Christopher Lindinger (CL) – There is an unbelievable number of very different definitions of a robot. They range from the historic image of a machine that more or less performs slave labour for humans, all the way to the popular conception of a humanoid likeness of us. The German industry standard defines a robot as a machine with a certain degree of automation that can lift particular weights — a very technical approach. By contrast, the Japanese equivalent describes the robot, in a nutshell, as a machine with a certain degree of automation that improves people’s quality of life. That goes to show how definitions can highlight different aspects. I prefer the Japanese definition.
Robots range from the historic image of a machine that more or less performs slave labour for humans, all the way to the popular conception of a humanoid likeness of us
In Japanese culture, there’s always the implicit Shinto idea that objects can have souls
AM – German engineering precision versus Japanese faith in technology — do these diverging definitions illustrate how open societies are to technological progress?
CL – In Japanese culture, there’s always the implicit Shinto idea that objects can have souls. That impacts the way machines are generally handled, and especially the robot debate. And in this regard, there’s a historical factor that is interesting as well. When the first industrial robots were introduced in the 1970s, Europe and the USA spent a lot of energy discussing what that would mean for workers whose jobs the robots would be taking over. In the end, the robots came and the people lost their jobs. Fear of the robot as a job killer was born. In Japan, companies agreed that for every robot installed, they would launch skills-development measures and create new jobs for any workers displaced. Is it any wonder that Japanese employees developed a more positive attitude to their robot colleagues? In their cultural history, too, the Japanese focus more on the image of a human-friendly robot, such as that embodied by the well-known manga character Astro Boy. Western cultures tend toward dystopias like Terminator, in which intelligent robots aim to subjugate humans.
AM – We don’t yet encounter many robots in our everyday lives at all. Will that be changing soon?
CL – Our fixation on humanoid robots means that at first we probably don’t even notice the robots that are increasingly becoming a part of our daily reality. You could say they operate incognito.
AM – Would you also define a self-driving car as a robot?
Yes. The cars equipped with artificial intelligence that will soon be cruising around without drivers are robots, according to my definition.
AM – One day, when intelligent robots move around autonomously on their own, will societies need new rules like science fiction author Isaac Asimov’s well-known Laws of Robotics?
CL – Asimov set down his three ground rules way back in 1942. They say that a robot may not injure a human being or allow a human being to come to harm, must obey the orders given it by human beings, and as a third priority must protect its own existence. This approach is still relevant, and even though it comes from science fiction, it still enriches the discourse. Debate about accounting for robotics in legislation has been in progress in the EU for quite some time. There, Asimov’s Laws of Robotics appear in the wording of the official statutes.
Asimov set down his three ground rules way back in 1942
I’m a fan of science fiction books and movies and personally like to imagine that robots will save us from extinction
AM – Robotics is evolving at an incredible pace. What advances can we look forward to in the near future?
CL – Robotics affects many technological fields that are currently making great strides. Power supply is a key issue. Thanks to electric mobility, among other things, battery and charging technologies for robotics are currently being optimised. New and smart materials have spurred progress in soft robotics, which allows us to build robots whose bodies resemble those of living organisms. This opens the door to new drive systems that mimic snakes’ or caterpillars’ movements. However, the biggest question hanging over robotics is not bodywork but the artificial intelligence that will control it.
AM – Do you believe that humans and robots will ultimately live happily ever after?
CL – I’m a fan of science fiction books and movies and personally like to imagine that robots will save us from extinction. They can perform tasks that we aren’t equal to because of our fragile bodies and limited lifespans. Who knows, maybe one day they’ll help us make our way to other planets.
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