The second of this year’s Ambassador Lecture Series titled Robots: The Future of Human Evolution was surprisingly interesting. Except for a few robotic jargons, it was engaging, inquisitive and easy to follow. It certainly helped that my evening started off with a lot of pizza courtesy of the ALS team! Structured around the speeches of the four renowned professors from the different departments of Maastricht University, the group of experts introduced the latest developments in artificial intelligence and the ethical questions concerning the development of robots and its influences in human life most notably health care. It also featured presentations from three of the brightest Maastricht students on their idea on possible future human-robot relations. The lucky winner received a gift from the UM gift shop along with the exclusive chance to dine with the four experts.
The first lecture Success: Luck or Design? was a tremendous success. Having attracted over 400 students, the seats were filled quickly and even students were sent home. This time around was fairly different but not negatively with still 200 students attending the lecture. The target base for this lecture was more selective unlike Robin Sieger’s first lecture which attracted students with very broad interests. This lecture narrowed down the interest group to students specifically interested in ethics and robotics. But as people started pouring in and filling the Mindersbroedersberg Aula, the team breathed a sigh of relief. There wasn’t the long queue that distinguished the first lecture but there was a certain buzz in the air. The seats filled up and the team was ready to go.
The host for the night was Prof. Dr. Gerhard Weiss. The Chair of the Department of Knowledge Engineering discussed the historical evolution of robotics. Prof. Weiss showed robotics in its infancy stage in the form of mechanical machines to sensor-motoric capabilities leading to cognitive aptitudes and robots eventually reaching autonomy. Prof. Weiss also touched upon the most intriguing questions of all. Will robots eventually take over? Are they our friend or our enemies? He concluded that robots are already everywhere in all facets of human life. The application of robotics is growing as robots’ cognitive abilities and autonomy increases.
As Prof. Dr. Luc de Witte took over, we met Paro and the cuddly harp seal quickly stole our attention with its big black eyes, long black whiskers and furry white body. This companion robot is changing the culture of care for elderly people suffering with dementia. The expert from the Department of Health Services Research of Maastricht University states that in his field of work they start with a problem in care and then identify a solution in order to help. He asserted that robotics must solve real life problems in health care not evolve for the sake of evolving.
Prof. Dr. Tsjalling Swierstra followed this by predicting that we will not be able to predict the future. Why? Because he believes that the future depends on the choices we make. The chair of the Department of Philosophy then presented us a number of scenarios. A robot presented as a child, would this child pornography be considered acceptable as there is technically no harm done? A robot used as a partner in sexual intercourse, would this constitute as rape? If the robot’s memory can be reset and wiped off, is there no harm done? The Chair of the Department of Philosophy & Director for the Ethics and Politics of Emerging Technologies asked some very intriguing and sensitive ethical and moral questions. How should we treat robots? Is there such a thing as mistreating robots? We want them to look like us, be similar to us but different enough so we can order them around to do our biding without feeling guilty. We design them to be “just like real people but not really people.”
Prof. Dr.Rico Möckel of SwarmLab meanwhile stresses the need for the artificial evolution of robots. He compares the natural evolution in nature, how changes is not planned and yet nature still out performs robots. He states that artificial evolution is needed as it allows the creation of robotic systems allowing the autonomous creation of robust systems behind the imagination of engineers. He gives an example of evolving swarm robots for disaster management or for assistive living. Will robots feature in our future? Prof. Möckel ultimately answers that our present life would be impossible without the already existing robots.
After the four speeches by the University’s expert panel, we move on to the student competition. We started with a presentation from Mark Fingerhuth, a 20 year old Science Programme student. He states that there is an exponential growth in technology further predicting that one day robots will take over our job. He notes this as a positive change. He believes that by passing on all the work to the robots we would not have to work anymore and this will lead to the obsolescence of Monday thus, resulting to the downfall of capitalism. What would he have us do instead? Nothing. From his perspective, we would not have do anything in the future. All of our time will be devoted to entertainment. We would read books and spend our idle time doing whatever we please. One of the four professors quips, the how would we relate to the people in the books? If we don’t have jobs and responsibilities, how can we sympathise with the people we’re reading? We then move on to David Natarajan, a Malaysian second year Department of Knowledge Engineering student. David also predicts that in the future robots will take over our jobs and that we are near this point. By taking over our jobs, society would be better off. He took for example the jury. By replacing human jury members, we take away the emotions on the trials leaving only known facts. He declares that this will lead to a real fair trial. He further predicts that in the future robots will look, act and communicate like humans. But the difference is that they will not have medical problems. The future of robots will not only lie in helping us humans but also our society. The last contestant, Elgianni Boersma, is a Filipino-Dutch second year DKE student as well. Elgianni states that robotics is like toddlers at this point in time. We need to teach them and take control as they are only autonomous in so far. They are good at straightforward task but for the more difficult tasks like driving in Mars, robots still need human direct commands. He asks what do we do when they are fully intelligible? Do we treated them as slaves or do we accept them as one of us? As the population is increasing exponentially, by the time we reach full artificial capacity who can afford them he asked. It would create an even bigger disparity. It was a tough call for the panel of experts but ultimately Mark Fingerhuth won the chance to dine with the four experts on the field.
It is not whether the future of human evolution features robots but how and in what capacity. They already present in all facets of human life. The question is how much robots are going to be involved in our daily human life. Will they really eventually take over our jobs? I guess that’s to debate for another lecture.
Karissa May Atienza