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Tomorrow’s Robots: From AI to EI

Who remembers the Jetsons, the popular cartoon from the 60’s? Whilst the prospect of having a robot to clean your house was a novelty when the show first aired, it’s now standard fare to see robovacs in electrical stores. Indeed, since Electrolux introduced us to the first robotic vacuum cleaner over 20 years ago we haven’t looked back. Yesterday’s household chores such as mopping, laundry folding and gutter cleaning can now be taken care of by house friendly ‘robots’.

As technology has advanced so too have the ambitions of AI developers. Attention of late has been focussed on creating more ‘emotionally savvy’ machines, making the robots more human. The big question is, as we embark on adding human elements, just how far do we go with morals and ethics? What should we consider in this next phase of AI development?

In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Sarah Dhanda, Head of Employer Engagement and Partnerships at Semta addressed the topic. “Many of us now rely on our robo vacuum cleaners or virtual personal assistants to save time and effort,” she says. “The next stage is for them to become more emotional. Algorithms can now train robots to listen and to be empathetic, and if the right patterns and learned behaviour are in place, they may one day be able to cry,” says Ms Dhanda.

“But when it comes to feeling natural emotion, the gulf between humans and machines is as wide as ever. A robot will certainly be able to mimic human behaviours – and perhaps even lie to us, if that’s how they are programmed – but it doesn’t mean they will ever become essentially human.”

Recent research published by the University of Michigan found that humans work better with robots when there is an emotional connection. Does Sarah agree? “When it comes to keeping well emotionally, I believe that training robots to identify and decode how we are feeling could help lift barriers between us and them,” Sarah says. “If it’s 2am and you desperately need someone to talk to but no human is available or willing to listen, a sympathetic robot may one day be a very welcome innovation. While bots can be trained to display empathy, innate emotional intelligence is a very human characteristic and something which separates a two-dimensional machine from a fully rounded person.”

So where do we go from here? What does the future hold for more emotionally intelligent robots?

“As we move further into the machine age, there are some very weighty ethical issues that will need to be thrashed out, particularly when it comes to programming machines to make decisions autonomously; but that in itself shouldn’t be a cause for concern. What we programme machines to see, hear and do is likely to be very different tomorrow to the restrictions we work around today, and not even the experts can be sure of how sophisticated robots will be in 20 years’ time,” says Ms Dhanda. “We are already in the second or third wave of development and, judging by the unprecedented rate of change we have seen in less than a decade, the future looks like a great adventure for all of us.”

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