Lifelike Robots – Why it’s a Future that’s Closer than You Think

Richard Peters

Channel 4’s new drama series, Humans is seen as science fiction but the parallel reality it depicts could be here sooner than you think. The new breed of robots featured in the programme, known as synths, do a wide range of jobs from selling newspapers; to cleaning work; to looking after the elderly.

It won’t be long before this future vision becomes reality. There are even historical parallels. In the first industrial revolution, technology was used to replicate human muscle and effort and deliver economic transformation. In the future, it will be used to reproduce human intellect and even emotion.

We are already seeing evidence of robot workers replacing humans.  Foxconn, the world’s largest contract manufacturer, for example, employs more than one million workers in China. The company installed more than 10,000 robots, known as Foxbots, in 2011.  It is now bringing them online at the rate of 30,000 per year. Each robot is used to perform routine tasks in the factory such as spraying, welding and assembly.

Today’s robots are also becoming increasingly humanoid in nature. Surprisingly, perhaps, that’s a trend also driven by manufacturing. Robots are typically programmed to carry out specific tasks within a pre-defined environment. It works as long as they are kept away from human workers but if people get in the way it can be dangerous. A recent incident where a man was killed in Germany by a robot who crushed him against a metal plate is a case in point. That’s why we are now seeing a trend towards designing and building robots that move like humans do and respond much more sensitively to their environment, stopping when they hit something, for example.

It’s a key point because once we know robots are safe to be around, we can start using them in lots of new ways. Japanese scientists are already busy creating robots that look like humans that scan faces and listen to voices to work out how people are feeling and react sensitively to their needs.

The idea is that these human androids will be able to look after the elderly and isolated, monitor their health and safety and provide them with a companion to counter feelings of loneliness.

Indeed, in the future, we can expect to see robots used in areas where they are interacting with many people – like theme parks, museums and shopping centres. It is in these kinds of areas where the expense of developing these androids can best be spread out.

Not all of these robots will be as clever as Robosthespian, developed by Engineered Arts, who can speak 30 languages, sing and even tell jokes, but next time you check-in at the cinema; chat to a museum guide or engage with a sales rep, it might be worth a quick double-take – was that really a person you were talking to?