Humanoid robots? "They will not steal jobs", on the contrary, "they will substitute us in the more dangerous or mindless jobs". This is the opinion of the engineer Bruno Siciliano, Professor at the Federico II University of Naples and one of the top Italian experts on robotics. The debate revolves around two aspects of the so-called anthropomorphised robots, which are the ones that have human appearance and characteristics: on the one hand there is a development of these androids for the purpose of including them in industrial processes, on the other hand there is a possibility – already concrete in some parts of the world – of finding yourself with a butler made of steel at home one day, a bit like we were used to seeing in science fiction films.
In Europe humanoids are seen mainly as potential workers in industrial processes.
The approach changes from one region to another. In the United States a large part of the research on humanoid robots concentrates on the possible military applications, but there are already some excellent concerns that use androids in the medical field, to assist surgeons in the operating theatre or to accelerate the rehabilitation of patients.
In Europe, instead, humanoids are seen mainly as potential "workers", and therefore to be used in industrial processes. There are many – the factories of Audi for example – that use mainly humanoid exoskeletons to aid the mobility of workers. A prospect that already frightens those who believe that millions of jobs might be occupied in a few years time by machines resembling humans. It is an idea that does not convince Professor Siciliano: "If we are talking about job killers then artificial intelligence is much more dangerous than humanoid robots". This is a paradox that can be explained in terms of the various functions that these technological helpers would cover: "The activities that can be performed by an artificial intelligence are numerous – says Siciliano – from customer services to call centres, while it is unlikely that robots could substitute human intelligence when peripheral, bodily abilities are required". In other words: "We will be operated on by robots but androids will make the surgeon’s work easier". And if some jobs disappear, since they will be done entirely by humanised machines, the result will be beneficial: "Here we are talking about the more dangerous jobs or mind-numbing jobs that require endless repetition of the same movements". Such as? Cleaning the outside of windows in a skyscraper, working in a chemical plant or a nuclear power station, pressing buttons in a factory.
The activities that can be performed by an artificial intelligence are numerous, from customer services to call centres, while it is unlikely that robots could substitute human intelligence when peripheral, bodily abilities are required.
However, while in the United States and Europe the idea of having a robot in the home in the same way we have a washing machine or TV still seems remote, things are different in Japan. It is also on account of a cultural question: According to Siciliano "In the West the idea of having a humanoid machine wandering around the house is frightening whereas in Japan the idea helps to accept it and make it feel familiar". In the United States something that is catching on is Jibo, a domestic butler that resembles a sphere, while in Japan several thousand families have welcomed Pepper, a white robot resembling a human that talks with people, remembers appointments, provides weather forecasts and does a few jobs around the home. Total cost: the equivalent of about 1,500 euro.
Can we expect to see the steel butler sooner or later in Italy too? "not for at least the next 5-10 years", in Siciliano’s opinion, partly because of the more industrial development of robots and partly on account of the different cultural concept already mentioned. But if forty years ago the idea of a personal computer available to everyone seemed out of this world, today we should be careful about predicting future scenarios of this type.