Isaac Asimov’s 1974 science fiction story That Thou Art Mindful of Him describes a world after an ecological catastrophe in which man builds special robots, each one named George, to bend nature back to the needs of mankind. As you read on, however, you discover that the machines’ ultimate purpose is quite different: to establish a dictatorship and dominate the world. The basis of their plan is in fact a reinterpretation of the famous Three Laws of Robotics, according to which they define themselves as “better human beings”.
Although in Asimov’s work, with a few exceptions such as the one mentioned above, the robots faithfully adhere to the Three Laws, thus safeguarding, even with their own sacrifice, the good and survival of mankind, the type of narrative around robotics has over time taken on a predominantly catastrophic connotation, going so far as to predict a dystopian reality in which we are enslaved by our own creations.
The theme of the man-machine relationship, which has returned to the forefront following the pandemic and the extraordinary acceleration of technology, opens up a multitude of scenarios and levels of discussion, not only with regard to the opportunities and, conversely, the practical effects on our lives and the world of work, but also in terms of identity and identification. Will it still be possible to define where man ends and the machine begins? Could technologies really replace us tomorrow?
This is one of the most fascinating and complex challenges of the future, and the perfect subject for an event such as Milan Phygital Week, where PHYD devoted a round table to this very topic in “Digital revolution: will technology replace us?”. Guests of the talk, hosted by Paolo Piva with Matteo Gaboardi, Business developer at Unique, the Tenure Track Researcher at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa, Alessandra Sciutti and Luca Torresan, Marketing Manager at McFIT.
Technology as an ally
Alessandra Sciutti and her team have been working for years with iCub, a humanoid robot with 53 motors and a high sense of proprioception, whose appearance resembles that of a three-year-old child. The project is open-source, both for software and hardware components, and is part of a larger work, RobotCub, involving several European universities. The study, an incredible example of cognitive robotics, has the ambitious goal of improving interaction with humans through the development of behavioural models that can support people in various areas and circumstances, such as disability or illness, or even physical activity and sport.
“It is important for a machine to be legible, easily understandable. It must, therefore, be intelligent and capable of understanding how one person looks at another person’s actions. The robot can then decide to move or shift its gaze, behaving in a way that maximises understanding of the other. Of course it’s not easy for the machine to capture these signals, so we work closely with neuroscientists”.
For Sciutti, a project like iCub could lay the foundations for creating technologies with an anthropomorphic mind, rather than an anthropomorphic form, applicable in various sectors from telecommunications to automotive. Already today, through the construction of small cognitive architectures and the principles of machine learning, robots can customise some of their actions in relation to the context. Currently, most technologies are incapable of sensing a glance, picking up an intention or mood and adapting accordingly. Yet it appears that the path to get there has already been mapped out.
The purpose of robots is to improve our existence and our interactions. They could also be a facilitating interface for all this technology that surrounds us, even in everyday life.
Alessandra Sciutti, Tenure Track Researcher – Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa
Luca Torresan also sees technology as a support. Proof of this is the McFIT app Cyberobics, dedicated to virtual workouts. Thousands of hours of pre-recorded courses with professional trainers, visible on smart TVs, PCs and mobile devices, which during the very long months of the pandemic were downloaded by more than 300,000 people and made accessible to everyone for free. “The future approach to technology will not replace face-to-face lessons, but will help trainers to personalise the relationship with the users“.
A different way of interacting
The greatest fear when it comes to robotics and artificial intelligence is that machines will become too much like humans and that their increasing pervasiveness will take away more and more opportunities for discussion and sharing of experiences. But is this really the case?
Torresan, for instance, sees virtual courses as somewhat limiting the interactions typical of a physical space, but at the same time creating new ones. “One of our courses trains about 3,000 people who then find themselves in an online community, on social networks, interacting, exchanging opinions and often organising face-to-face meetings.” Rather than acting by subtraction, therefore, technology adds to, or rather reinforces, the sense of belonging and the atavistic human need to socialise.
Sciutti agrees, “the purpose of robots is to improve our existence and our interactions. They could also be a facilitating interface for all this technology that surrounds us, even in everyday life”.
I, Robot. What the future holds
If we look at the industrial context and its processes, the transformation we are talking about has already begun: most conversions, in fact, have been possible thanks to the implementation of technologies. Today, however, the most interesting aspect concerns the paradigm shift. In fact, robotics research no longer focuses on mass and serial production, but at customisation. According to Sciutti: “One needs to be able to learn new things quickly, to adapt. Therefore, the focus of research, in the interests of efficiency and social good, is on collaboration. In this light, I can imagine a much less negative future.”
To ensure that tomorrow does not end up looking like a sci-fi story or a disaster movie, technological progress must always be followed by ethical progress. “More than the what, and equally to the how, let us also ask why. Why do we do something, why do we use that technology?“, asks Gaboardo, reminding us of sociologist Neil Postman’s main lesson:
It is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect. Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.
We make sense of it.
To watch the event, simply register on the PHYD site.