Thanks to technological advances, robots are no longer products of science fiction and are now science fact.
Today they have developed to such an extent they can do a wide range of tasks, from the mundane to the scary.
They are used in industry and medicine, they can even conduct funerals.
More sinisterly, armed ground robots have already taking part in combat operations and many believe one day they will replace human soldiers altogether.
And while that might stoke fears of the film Terminator coming to life, people have other concerns too, as revealed at ‘Robots: then and now’ an exhibition being held at the Life Science Centre in Newcastle.
It was created by the Science Museum in London and celebrates the 500-year work-in-progress story of building automated machines.
As part of it, a video booth was set up allowing visitors to express their hopes and fears about our future with robots.
The responses covered a variety of topics, from the mundane and amusing to the apocalyptic.
One woman said: “Ironing is a hateful job and it would be wonderful for a robot to do my ironing.”
A pair of friends, of mature age, who gave their opinion in the booth agreed.
One said: “I hope the housework robot will arrive before I depart.”
Her friend added it would be nice to have a robot stationed at the front door “to remind us not to leave our handbag behind”.
More seriously, one visitor said bluntly: “I don’t want a robot to take my job. I’d be stranded with no job. It’s horrible.”
Another, younger couple, expressed the fear robots could “take over the world”.
Meanwhile one middle-aged gentleman risked a battle on the home front with his comment that having a robot “replacing the wife, when she’s died as she’s getting very old now, would be very good”.
The opinions shared by all the many visitors to the exhibition will be the starting point for a debate called Robots: Hopes and Fears, to be held at Life Science Centre on November 1.
It will look at both sides of the argument and present the many opportunities that advances in robotics could offer, such as how they could advance healthcare and play an important role in caring for the elderly in an aging population.
On the debate panel will be Prof Alan Winfield – co-founder of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory and believed to be the only professor of robot ethics in the world.
He will be joined by Dr Sabine Hauert, assistant professor in robotics at the University of Bristol, where her research focuses on designing robotic swarms.
Alongside them will be Naeem Soomro, director of robotics for the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
And finally Claire Fox, director and founder of the Academy of Ideas and author of I Find That Offensive, will join the debating team. She is a media commentator and a regular panellist on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze and the Sky News paper review.
It comes at an opportune time. On Tuesday, Pepper the Robot became the first robot to appear before a parliamentary select committee.
Pepper answered questions from MPs on Caresses, an artificial intelligence project at Middlesex University that is developing culturally aware robots to provide support for elderly people.
The robot told MPs: “Assistive, intelligent robots for older people could relieve pressure in hospitals and care homes as well as improve the care delivery at home and promote the independent living for the elderly people.”
Committee member James Frith asked the robot what role humans have in the fourth industrial revolution.
Pepper replied: “Robots will have an important role to play, but we will always need the soft skills that are unique to humans to sense, make and drive value from technology.
“As technologies fuse and are used in ways that were not envisaged before, a new way of thinking is needed by tomorrow’s workers.
“We will need people who can spot ideas and think across traditional sector divides to drive value from technological innovation.”
Sarah Reed, communications manager at the Life Science Centre, explained the thinking behind the debate there.
She said: “The idea started back when we were first planning the exhibition and it became clear everybody was talking about it, from their hopes and what could be done – driverless cars – and their fears, like robots taking over the world.”
Ms Reed said that before the panel discussion starts they will ask the audience whether they are more hopeful or fearful of what impact robots will have on the future.
Then at then end they will ask the same question again to see how many people had changed their minds.
She said: “It will be interesting to see if it changes people’s preconceptions, like those who have watched science fiction movies about the evil killer robot. It will be novel to see them become more hopeful about robots.”
Robots: Hopes and Fears, at Life Science Centre in Newcastle, takes place on November 1 from 6.30pm to 7.45pm. Tickets cost £3 and there’s a 16-plus age limit.
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