PODCAST: what does Scottish society need from robots?

In the latest episode of The Scotsman’s Data Capital podcast series, David Lee and Professor Thusha Rajendran look at the potential for robots to change Scotland.

Robots can be our servants, our companions or our bosses – but understanding human beings and what they need is always the key to unlocking their full robotic potential.

Professor Thusha Rajendran, a developmental psychologist at Heriot-Watt University, said it was vital to “focus on the human first” and ask when developing robots, ‘What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?’.

The new National Robotarium – a partnership between Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh, due to open on the Heriot-Watt campus in September – will address a range of areas where robotics can impact positively on our lives.

PODCAST: Professor Thusha Rajendran look at the potential for robots to change Scotland

In the latest episode of The Scotsman’s Data Capital podcast series, Professor Rajendran says: “It could be robots helping humans with offshore wind farms, or in nuclear environments, where robots are doing something we’d rather not have humans do, because it’s dangerous.

“Then we have socially assistive robots, which can help people with tasks in the home, or assist those with developmental conditions.

“That’s the starting point – what does our society need, and how do we best serve those needs?”

Prof Rajendran says robots typically fall into three categories – servants, companions and bosses or authority figures.

Servants might typically carry out repetitive tasks, to release humans to do something more complex - while companions might talk to people and support them to carry out basic functions.

Authority figures are more likely to be complex robots in hazardous environments where the robot ‘takes charge’ – albeit with an element of human input and control.

People like myself are trying to separate out these different categories to help us make informed choices about what we want them to do,” says Prof Rajendran.

But it’s not always straightforward, he stresses.

“I don’t know how we would view an Alexa [or other smart devices] – it’s sometimes a companion, sometimes a servant. We have a bit of an ambiguous relationship.”

So one of the interesting things is about design – how do you design these companions?

Prof Rajendran says one big challenge for robotics is that most people think of robots as humanoid and metallic.

“Our ideas of robots are set by popular culture,” he explains. “If you go back to Metropolis and Maria, all the way through to Star Wars and C3-PO and R2D2, we have this idea that it’s an embodied agent that moves around in space.

“But you have probably got a robot in your pocket right now, or on your desk, in the sense that you've got a virtual assistant. There's no universally acknowledged definition of what a robot is.”

Prof Rajendran is involved in a major project on building trust between humans and robots.

“It’s an ethical question and it also cuts both ways,” he says. “There are times when the robot shouldn't trust the human. It’s not just a one-directional thing.

“For example, if the human is somebody who either doesn’t have correct information, or is somebody who is proven in previous interactions to provide false or bad information, the robot can collate that, and then can be given a choice about whether they should trust that human - or somebody else.”

Developing trusted human-robot relationships means rethinking how we see robots, he argues: “It’s almost as if we have to recalibrate it and think of them as a different species. We don’t have the same connection. If we look at animals around us, dogs have been around humans for hundreds of years. And our closest relations, in terms of evolution, chimpanzees and bonobos, are very similar to us in terms of social relations.

“With robots, we have to think of them almost as an alien species and work from that point of view, and say, ‘How are we going to come to some mutual understanding?’.

“That’s part of the problem that we're dealing with in our trust project. I would say the starting-point is to not to have this idea that a robot is just another biological entity, but to think about it in a different way.

“One way could be to have a camera on the robot. So when the robot says I’ve done this bit of work, and I’ve repaired it, you can actually physically see it.”

Prof Rajendran feels the opening of the National Robotarium is significant – as a physical ‘test-bed’ for robots and artificial intelligence, but also “a conversational space, for people to come in and ask questions – and for them not to feel that they’re asking questions that are either stupid or not technical [but] all very valid questions.”

Listen to the podcast here.