Humans & Robots
Bruno Siciliano - University of Naples Federico II
Human as a technical subject
Technique is the essence of the human being. Not something external and in competition with a claimed original naturalness of human, but since long a drive to overcome one's limits to equip oneself with tools of freedom and liberation with which our species has been able to evolve. Each time a new technology emerges it fits within the ecosystem creating a new cultural phenomenon that over time produces ethical, political, economic and environmental implications. Nowadays, Internet and new technologies including Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have led to a horizontal revolution that is entering all productive sectors and changing our lives cognitively, symbolically, anthropologically.
The interaction paradigm
The extraordinary advances in robotics over the past 60 years have seen industrial automatons confined to spaces away from humans transformed into cobots, collaborative robots that work side-by-side with the operator or are equipped with autonomy to move and work even in the presence of uncertainty and variability in the environment. A new and, above all, safe space and task-sharing operation is being shaped by the fact that robots are made of lightweight materials, often have elastic joints and, most importantly, sensors that detect collisions in advance to avoid harm to humans. Hence, robots are growing from static, repetitive machines into autonomous, mobile agents with the ability to learn and adapt to the environment.
Not just minds and sensors as in AI with which robotics is often misidentified, but also mechanical bodies capable of intervening in the real world, which may be a human environment (for social robots), a city street (for an autonomous vehicle), a nursing home or hospital (for a robot providing care or assisted living), or a workplace (for a companion robot).
AI has made big progress in the processing of images and sound, yet tactile information remains a much bigger challenge.
Moravec's well-known paradox is the discovery by AI and Robotics researchers that, contrary to traditional assumptions for a computer, a high level of reasoning ability requires modest computational resources, while a low level of sense-motor ability requires enormous computational resources.
Indeed, the difficulty of acquiring enough real-world information to feed supervised or reinforced learning algorithms has been recognized. To solve unstructured, highly interactive tasks in the real world, data cannot be taken for granted, whereas the system itself must process data from the environment through interaction. This is the fundamental challenge that robotics poses to the future of AI, a challenge that makes the two disciplines inseparable.
We are the protagonists of a technological revolution in which Robotics is destined to play a driving role for a new generation of autonomous devices which, through the ability to learn, will be able to collaborate with human and interact with the external environment, thus providing the missing link between the digital and physical world in which we live. Hence, the neologism InterAction Technology (IAT) proposed by the Italian Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Machines (I-RIM) in the mission statement – where the ‘A’ is deliberately capitalised to emphasise the importance of the physical action.
IAT, as the technology that fleshes out Artificial Intelligence, will play a key role in the near future. It is already today the engine of competitiveness and flexibility of the manufacturing industry, where Europe has one of its most resilient excellences. Robotics for services is showing even more disruptive effects on sectors such as agriculture, health care, environmental monitoring, security, transport, infrastructure and public services.
From Internet-of-Things to Internet-of-Skills
5G is expected to contribute to promoting the efficiency of robotic systems, which will pave the way for a new generation of robots controlled via wireless communication and at the same time equipped with new processing and data storage resources via the cloud. Robots operating in environments cohabited by humans in the near future will need to have the ability to interact, make decisions and react flexibly to unexpected events. To do this, a robot must be able to probe the environment and gain awareness of its surroundings. Improving sensory skills and processing of information from the outside is essential and this will be possible through the use of exteroceptive sensors such as distance, vision and contact sensors which will have to be increasingly sophisticated. Deep learning-based image and sound processing techniques have increased the need for high computational resources. Even if the computing capacity and the miniaturisation of processors has improved in recent years, one cannot think of housing all the necessary computing capacity in a robot. Being able to connect a robot via a wireless connection with one or more external computers represents an enormous wealth that can open the door to a new generation of robots with unprecedented characteristics of autonomy, safety and reliability. That said, in order for a robot to work correctly, the connection must allow for the transfer of a large number of data per second and that the time taken to transfer the data be sufficiently small and above all predictable, i.e. with constant latency.
With 5G, robots will eventually be able to be controlled dynamically in real time and be connected with people and machines both locally and globally. It is therefore understandable how Internet-of-Things (IoT) can be overcome by Internet-of-Skills (IoS), a "tactile internet" to allow a remote physical experience through haptic devices that combine with the skills, for example, of the drone operator or the surgeon dealing with an operation performed using a remote robotic system.
Ultimately, the new paradigm of interpenetration between the emulation of the digital twin and the operation of physical reality (the phygital twin) redesigns in an extraordinary way not only the industrial field but also promises to have an impact in other fields of application: agri-food, medical-health, urban mobility, hostile or poorly structured environments.
Towards a technological humanism
Every technological project is the result of precise choices that are linked to cultures, human values, and even more or less conscious prejudices. For this reason, it is important that citizen users be properly sensitized and informed about the opportunities and limitations of each new technology, so as to nurture a critical reflection away from polarizations between utopian hopes and dystopian visions. There needs to be a collective effort to avoid believing that technology is something inevitable and out of our control, a false myth that breeds a kind of passivity and fear in the future. We are responsible for the technologies we deploy, and we must strengthen the culture of regulation so as to protect society from the risks of possible degeneration of a certain use of technology, to enable progress that serves humanity as a whole and is always in harmony with nature. A progress that, bringing with it an extraordinary connectivity between humans and machines from which derive new languages, ways of knowing, working and participating in collective life, can turn into a new drive: that of affirming the least artificial feature of our world: our humanity.