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Are we learning to love robots?

April 27, 2017

At the Hanover Fair, robots and humans were at the center of industrial activity. We're to be collaborators now. The question is: can we ever learn to love robots? DW's Zulfikar Abbany finds a line still clearly drawn.

Hannover Messe - Roboter Dinosaurier
Image: DW/Z. Abbany

Picture the scene: on the left there's a huge Kawasaki robot housed in a glass cage and on the right, outside and looking in, are two ordinary people, a woman and a man, middle-aged. The woman has shortish grey hair and a bewildered look; the man has long grey hair and a bewildered look. Perhaps they are hippies, the kind who survived and now exist with one foot in the mainstream and another somewhere between here - the 2017 Hanover Fair - and some recurring trip. In any event, they are standing there, observing this huge automated thing, and talking quietly amongst themselves about our human experience with robots.

There's only one thing you can do in a situation like that and that's join the conversation. So I ask them how they feel about robots. Do they fear them?

"No, I've no reason to fear robots," says the man, Dieter Gräbenitz. "I've never had an opportunity to fear robots because I've yet to come across them as fully-automated machines in my daily life."

It's different in industry, he says, but we've yet to really see automated cars on our roads - so why should I be scared, he asks.

Hannover HMI Messe 2017
Image: DW/Z. Abbany

His companion, Daniela Runge, on the other hand, finds the mere sight of this robot scary.

"It's scary to see how this machine moves," says Runge. "It's got animal characteristics. We were just saying how it reminds us of dinosaurs."

It's an interesting analogy, given that many people fear we'll go the same way the dinosaurs went about 65 million years ago if, or when, robots get intelligent and cheap enough to replace humans - whether that's through artificial intelligence or something approaching what we consider to be human intelligence.

Man is machine

For Gräbenitz, it all goes back to Marx. But don't laugh - the man makes a good point.

"Humans have become part of the machine since the start of the industrialization of our world," he says. "The question now is how we humans can free ourselves and, indeed, whether we want to free ourselves at all from this process." 

Just then, a sales executive from Kawasaki asks us to continue our conversation elsewhere, not in front of his robot. When I explain that we're talking about the thing, he concedes, but declines, rather rudely, to answer any questions himself. So I speak to his colleague, Tobias Köhler, instead. Has our fear of robots got any better, I ask?

Hannover HMI Messe 2017
Image: DW/Z. Abbany

"Well, there are different opinions. I sell robots, so I of course have to say, 'Don't be worried,' but you do find companies where the employees are scared they'll lose their jobs because of robots," Köhler says. "But that's not true. We're trying to use robots to make life easier, and people are learning to accept robots more and more."

Elsewhere there's a huge crane like robot, gripping a VW car. Watching it toss the car from side-to-side is an Indian manufacturer called Nandlal, who runs a plastics recycling plant. He and a colleague, who makes agricultural machinery, have no qualms about robots.

"No, I have no worries about robots," says Nandlal, "because man makes the robots - without man, where are the robots? Robots are for humans and not the other way around."

Collaborative robotics

It's striking how aesthetic some robots have become. Take a look at "Sawyer" by Rethink Robotics or the range from Universal Robots. Both companies work in the field of collaborative robotics - the idea of robots working closely with humans and enabling humans to interact with robots with a simple push or a shove, which, depending on your take, is ironic.

Some can be seen at the Hanover Fair pouring beer from bottles, allowing the bartenders to spend more time chatting or checking their phones. I suppose that's one pay-off. But how are you going to pay your phone bill when that friendly robot puts you out of your job?

Hannover HMI Messe 2017
Image: DW/Z. Abbany

Then there are companies like Taiwan's Techman Robot, which wants collaborative robots to help workers with visual impairment.

TM Robot's Judy Chen says making robots more collaborative, bringing them closer to humans, will reduce people's fear of them.

"In the past, industrial robots were kind of untouchable," says Chen. "But robots now, you can touch and teach them, even if you don't have an engineering background. And your life can get better."

It's a line often spun: the idea that robots will help us achieve some kind of utopia, where we'll all earn more money and do more interesting jobs while robots do the boring stuff, or that we'll generally have more time for fun in life.

So is all we need a greater intimacy with robots? The answer may depend on how intelligent robots become. Engineering student Tianqiao Xu says when robots are robots, there's no reason to worry. But we'll have to worry when robots become human.

"It's okay when robots are used in industry because their intelligence is quite low," he says, "It might take a hundred years to make robots as truly intelligent as humans. So the question about our fear of robots and artificial intelligence may be one for future generations, because that's when it will be a reality."

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI, the mind, how science touches people, European perspectives
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