Robots to the rescue

Japanese researchers hope robots will be the answer to coping with the nation’s aging population.

A vacuuming machine developed by Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd is already cleaning floors in about 10 buildings around the country, including a 54-floor skyscraper in central Tokyo.

The device operates at night after office workers have gone home. It takes elevators to move from one floor to another.

Service robots are probably the most clichéd futurist vision, but the benefits are manifold. Industrial applications like the one above are only the start — it’s only natural researchers look into more domestic uses.

As Japan’s population grows older and its labor force shrinks, researchers say new types of robots will play a major role as there simply won’t be enough people to do these jobs.

“In the type of ageing society that we foresee, the situation will likely get to the point where there will be little choice but to get some help from them (robots),” said Isao Shimoyama, dean of the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Information Science and Technology.

Shimoyama’s group, which is working with the likes of Toyota and Fujistu, aims to have a new generation of the devices up and running within 15 years. Prototypes could be ready in as little as 18 months.

“They may look smart, but they are still quite stupid,” Shimoyama said. “I don’t think they will ever be as smart as humans.”

For a man who’s made robots his field of expertise, he doesn’t seem up to speed. Just a few days ago technologists and investors gathered at the Singularity Summit to discuss artificial intelligence and how to deal with machines that are smarter than humans.

Wendell Wallach predicted we are just years away “from a catastrophic disaster brought about by an autonomous computer system making a decision”. Skynet is what springs to my mind. Wallach specialises in bioethics, and has spoken about the creation of a robotic code of ethics. I could have sworn Asimov established that years ago:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Of course, a sufficiently advanced robot would be capable of overwriting its own programming — this would essentially mark its transition from object to sentience (though I would be willing to debate this).

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