“I’ve always felt that I was a little bit different, but I’ve always tried to fit in,” confesses a wide-eyed humanoid.
This is not the voice of Siri or Cortana. It is a 58-centimetre tall NAO robot, and the newest employee at the Sydney Opera House.
Directed by Ian Williamson and Russ Tucker, Being a Robot Usher places you in the shoes of a robot on its first day at work. It faces the same challenges – remembering new faces, learning office protocol, socialising. By the end of the short film, you begin to feel a sense of empathy for this blue and white friend, just that it isn’t actually, human.
Somehow that’s a little disconcerting. But why?
The Rise of Robots
Humanoid robots are already working together with humans. In Australia, robots are instructing children through physiotherapy exercises – a world-first trial at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital. Schools in South Australia are exploring ways to introduce NAO robots into schools to encourage class engagement. Lead researcher, Dr Therese Keane explains that Australian schools need to prepare students with necessary skills for the future. And robots are clearly part of the solution.
But Will They Take Our Jobs?
The fear of the robots isn’t unfounded. Martin Ford, a Silicon Valley software entrepreneur, shares raises genuine concerns about robots replacing humans in the workforce.
In his New York Times bestseller Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Ford warns that the rapid advancement of robot technology could make entire industries redundant. “It’s not just about doing manual labour as it was in the past,” he explained. “Now we’ve got robots and machines and algorithms that are taking over brain power.”
In Ford’s opinion, advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) increase the risk of robots taking over a broad range of fields – from fast food to law and even the creative arts. Creative machines are already writing symphonies and painting artworks. Unless humans formulate a contingency plan for a jobless future, Ford believes income might accrue among a small number of wealthy people who can afford machines, triggering a “downward spiral” into economic collapse.
According to Dr Keane, fears are also being stirred up by negativity in the media regarding technology, especially when it comes to automation. “People are concerned about their own employment… and they’re concerned their children may not have jobs in the future,” she said. However, Dr Keane isn’t personally concerned about our increasing reliance on technology, instead she sees it as “progressive for society”.
Meanwhile, humans continue to explore new ways for better collaboration between man and machine. Swinburne University of Technology’s Dr Chris McCarthy is hopeful that robots could help overcome the huge challenge paediatric doctors face in keeping children motivated so they can perform the rehabilitation exercises correctly.
The lead researcher asserts that the trial at the Royal Children’s Hospital is breaking new ground. “In the future, we will explore the use of social robots like NAO for other paediatric health care needs beyond rehabilitation,” he said.
While concerns about the impact of robots on human life are genuine, the potential benefits are equally compelling. While Being a Robot Usher shows humans treating their robot colleague like a friend, people’s feelings in reality will likely remain conflicted for some time yet.