Service Robots – here to help?

A thought sparked by the publication ‘Our work here is done: Vision of a robot economy‘, edited by Stian Westlake from Nesta: Discussions around robots are often dominated by sentiments and fears that refer to our concept of ‘industrial robots’, whereas actually the newest generation of robots can more accurately be described as ‘service robots’. It could clear up much of the confusion in debates if we recognise this distiction.

Industrial robots have largely been developed and used to take over dangerous, heavy and dirty work from people. These robots are powerfull, efficient and productive. They have gradually taken over the factory floor, where they tend to perform best when there are few people around. These machines can dangerous to be around, and human error may jeopardise their work. They are best to be left alone, doing their jobs. In this way they have replaced many people in many workplaces, and understandably this consequence is often met with mixed feelings – as now humans do not have to do the heavy and dirty work anymore, but it has also rendered countless people jobless.

Service robots on the other hand are mostly being developed to function in collaboration with people, not to replace them. They are meant to support us with everyday personal tasks, and because of this they need to be able to be around us without putting us to risk. They are required to perform in messy and complex environments, where we can and will continue to make our ‘human mistakes’ and perform our ‘erratic behaviour’. Service robots will have to be able to co-exist with people. They need to sense all sorts of signals in their environment, and effectively adjust to these signals.

New sensor technologies combined with improving artificial intelligence are making the gradul development service robots possible. Although it is still early stage, and the prototypes presented are often still somwhat clunky, the industry is approaching a very interesting stage. The introduction of service robots in real life is definitly coming closer. With our background in Human Computer Interaction we are very intrigued to apply our research methodology to this new area of Human Robot Interaction. As with all new emerging technologies a lot of testing and tweaking will be needed to move the field on before it will be truely successful and embraced by people in their everyday lives.

(Image at top: © Nesta)