Interview: Dr Kevin Curran on how robots will coexist with humans

"Apart from childbirth, it's hard to think of anything a robot cannot easily replicate."

We’re endlessly fascinated by robots. From how they work to what they’re capable of, to whether they’ll ever exist alongside humans like in Blade Runner and I, Robot. So when we got the chance to interview Dr. Kevin Curran, senior member of the Institute of Electrical & Electronic Engineers and someone who’s talked a lot about how robots might one day live alongside us, we said “affirmative.”

Here’s what we learnt.

1. Hi Dr. Curran – please introduce yourself!

Hi. I’m Dr Kevin Curran, a reader in Computer Science at Ulster University and senior member of the IEEE, providing comment on trends in technology. On a more personal note, I am husband to Maxine and father to two boys – both geeks like their dad. I’m very proud, but we have terrible meal time conversations with everyone’s head buried in a tablet!

2. You’ve been quoted before as saying that you think humanoid robots are an inevitable part of our future. How long do you think it’ll be before they’re mainstream?

A true humanoid robot (or droid) would be a recreation of the human thought process – a manmade machine with our intellectual abilities. This would include the ability to learn just about anything, the ability to reason, the ability to use language and the ability to formulate original ideas. Roboticists are nowhere near achieving this level of artificial intelligence, but they have made a lot of progress with more limited AI. Today’s AI machines can replicate some specific elements of intellectual ability.

Humanoid robots of course are robots which have human characteristics (eg. ASIMO from Honda) as opposed to say the robotic Roomba vacuum cleaner. Humanoids therefore would display a rich diversity of projects where perception, processing and action were embodied in a recognisably anthropomorphic form in order to emulate some subset of the physical, cognitive and social dimensions of the human body and experience. Artificial Intelligence is of course the mechanism that can drive all of this.

Computers can already solve problems in limited realms. The basic idea of AI problem-solving is very simple, though its execution is complicated. First, the AI robot or computer gathers facts about a situation through sensors or human input. The computer compares this information to stored data and decides what the information signifies. The computer runs through various possible actions and predicts which action will be most successful based on the collected information. Of course, the computer can only solve problems it’s programmed to solve — it does not have any generalised analytical ability.

It will be a while, however, before robots are commonplace at work. The best droid at the moment is Petman from Boston Robotics:

When I give my talks to the public, the one everyone remembers is Big Dog – also from the Boston Robotics group:

3. Do you think society is prepared for an influx of “people” who aren’t biological?

I think it will be so gradual that people may not notice. Take Siri for instance. Ask it a question and it gives you a stunning response a lot of the time. That really is artificial intelligence working, but no one really thinks it is or is worried.

Already, humans doing many tedious automated tasks have been replaced. I see no reason why this trend will not continue. Before long, robotic cars will do our driving as well. I believe AI-driven cars will do a better job. Google are leading the field in this area.

The day of businesses outsourcing projects to robots could come sooner than we think. Take India for instance, the outsourcing sector there contributes a massive $69bn annually to their economy and makes up no less than 25% of its exports. Costs are climbing, however, due to high inflation and a skills shortage which is pushing salaries and training costs higher. This is also being replicated in other popular outsourcing territories like Indonesia, Mexico and the Philippines. So the appeal of getting robots to carry out work is increasing.

We may see large warehouses on the edge of cities full of robots carrying out repetitive tasks in a much more efficient manner than currently. It must be remembered that robots do not go on strike, do not turn up late for work or take breaks. As long as they have power and people to repair them, all is fine.

4. Do you think humans will begin to merge with robots – start replacing fallible body parts with electronics, for instance, or ‘upgrading’ ourselves? Do you think that’s a good thing?

The scope of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is huge. We tend to imagine AI in its grandest form as a humanoid robot communicating with us, as portrayed in movies such as Bladerunner. The truth is more mundane but shows that AI software is running underneath all sorts of modern technological tasks, from autopilot to the magnificent gyroscope ability of Segways. Anywhere that ‘fast fuzzy’-type decisions need to be made, there is some Artificial Intelligence involved.

In fact, a simple search on Google is basically putting AI to work. Language, speech, translation, and visual processing all rely on machine learning or AI. Many of the leading AI researchers work for Google. It’s becoming the place to go for machine learning. Artificial Intelligence only gets better – it never gets worse. Computational intelligence techniques simply keep on becoming more accurate and indeed faster due to giant leaps in processor speeds.

AI is used in droids to provide perception. This area includes computer vision as well as a great variety of other sensing modalities including taste, smell, sonar, IR, haptic feedback, tactile sensors, and a range of motion sensors. It also includes implementation of unconscious physiological mechanisms such as the vestibulo-ocular reflex, which allows humans to track visual areas of interest while moving.

AI is also very important for human-robot interaction so that they can communicate efficiently, accurately, and conveniently with humans and pick up visual cues such as gestures and facial expressions that guide interaction. Basically, AI is crucial for all their learning and adaptive behaviour so they can adapt existing capabilities to cope with environmental changes. It’s key to helping them learn new tasks on the fly by sequencing existing behaviours. Any robot that has legged locomotion uses very sophisticated AI to be able to walk upstairs and steep inclines and over rough, uneven terrain. Likewise with arm control and dexterous manipulation so they can perform tasks including catching balls, chopping vegetables, performing telesurgery, and pouring coffee.

5. What upgrades would you like to see/perform on yourself if you could?

Surprisingly, Kevin didn't want his finger replaced with a stylus

I guess I would like the instant search feature of navigating the internet implanted in my brain. How tedious for me to have to reach for my laptop or phone to look up information or interact. How perfect would it be if the internet was searchable through an implant in my head? Then I would be so wise. Of course, society itself would also increase in wisdom and I guess the losers would be those who could not afford the implant…

6. Is there any part of biology or humanity that you think technology can never replace?

Apart from childbirth, it’s hard to think of anything a robot cannot easily replicate.

7. You’ve talked previously about the inevitability of sex robots. What effects do you think that’ll have on humanity? Will we still have relationships with other humans? Will anyone go outside?!

Is it objectification if it's technically an object? Image © iStock/LisaMarieB

I do think the most unusual thing that robots will be used for is as companions. Robophilia (also known as robot fetishism, or technosexuality) is the name commonly used to describe a fetishistic attraction to humanoid or non-humanoid robots. We’ve already seen a move by the adult industry to capitalise on the advances in virtual reality (VR) headsets such as the Oculus Rift, and repurpose them for porn.

In some ways it’s an incremental move for society to deal with and can be seen simply as a different viewing experience. We should also not presume that a robot/human relationship is automatically inferior to a human-human relationship. People often fall in love with fictional characters even though they have no chance to interact with them in a physical way.

The issue of ‘intimate robots’ and the potential of android-human couples walking hand in hand through the streets and raising families does, however, cause us as a society to pause and think. There may be questions about whether we have sufficient legalisation in place for the issues that can arise in a future where robots are sufficiently advanced as to be indistinguishable from humans at first glance.

I would expect ‘female’ robots to first gain traction in China to offset the gender balance. We would be naïve to ignore market forces for ‘intimate robots’. Building human-like robots is quite easy once the mechanics are taken care of. Google are pumping hundreds of millions into building more advanced robots – turning these robots into attractive companions is simply a case of adding a ‘skin’. Not difficult at all, and the only reason it’s not done much to date is that most robots are built in research-led institutions – not businesses. That time is coming to an end.

8. Can a robot consent?

No, not in the sense that we mean by that statement. However, it can simulate consent to the utmost degree. Ultimately, though, an algorithm – intelligent as it may be – is making the robot answer yes.

9. In your opinion, will we ever see a robot that’s indistinguishable from a human?

"WTF is that?" Image © iStock/estt

Yes, we will see a robot that is indistinguishable from a human. Incredible strides are being made with voice recognition and natural language understanding, so it may not be too long before computers can ‘fool us’ as described by the Turing test. The mechanics of movement and the ‘human like’ skin should not come too far behind. In fact, after a few drinks, I suspect many will not be able to distinguish at all.

Well, this has been equally exciting and terrifying – thank you, Kevin. If you’d like to hear more from Dr. Curran, follow him on Twitter: @DrKevinCurran.

Main image © iStock/iLexx

Holly Brockwell
About Holly Brockwell 291 Articles
Tech addict Holly founded Gadgette in 2015, and won Woman of the Year for it. She's firmly #TeamAndroid, has ambitions to become a robot, and beat all other Hollies to her awesome Twitter handle.