The 10 “great challenges” for robots


An international panel suggests moral boundaries and better power supplies are among the difficulties faced by tomorrow’s bots. Lauren Fuge reports.


Learning and making moral decisions are among the challenges robots – robot designers – face.
Learning and making moral decisions are among the challenges robots – robot designers – face.
Donald Iain Smith/Getty Images

Developing the capacity to make moral decisions is one of the 10 greatest challenges facing robots in the near future, according to an international team robotics experts.

A new paper, published in the journal Science Robotics, compiles 10 major unsolved hurdles in robotics. These pressing challenges were collected during an open online survey and narrowed down by a panel of experts, led by Guang-Zhong Yang, director of the Hamlyn Centre for Robotic Surgery at Imperial College London, in the UK.

Four of the challenges are related to the development of technology that will reshape the future of robotics, going beyond gears and motors. These include creating new materials and manufacturing methods; using brain-computer interfaces to augment human capabilities; developing inexpensive but long-lasting batteries and energy-harvesting schemes; and using nature as an inspiration – either translating biological principles into engineering design or integrating living components into robotic structures.

Three challenges focus on fundamental problems in robotics: developing robot swarms, improving navigation and exploration, and developing artificial intelligence that can “learn how to learn”, and use common sense to make moral and social decisions.

Two crucial challenges are in the areas of social interaction, where robots must be taught to understand the complexities of human social dynamics, and medicine, where the increased use of intelligent robotic devices will face a plethora of legal, ethical, and technical questions.

The last challenge is reminiscent of concerns that frequently feature in sci-fi: the ethical dilemmas and security problems of integrating autonomous robots into society.

The researchers recommend that we should deal with such complex concerns in policy and society early, while the technology is still under development, and note that we should be more worried about human ignorance than artificial superintelligence: “Humans, not technology, are both problem and solution and shall remain so for any foreseeable future,” they write.

Professor of Artificial Intelligence at UNSW Sydney Toby Walsh was not involved in the study but agrees that ethics “is truly one of the grand challenges that faces us in the coming decades”.

Walsh comments, however, that “the challenges lack vision. They won't inspire young people today to go into the field”.

In his eyes, a grand challenge in the near future of robotics might be to build a robot to discover life on the solar system’s moons, or to “go into your teenager’s room, pick up the clothes from the floor, wash, fold and put them away in the wardrobe”.

The researchers acknowledge that the compiled list is not exhaustive, but addressing even these 10 challenges will have significant social, political and socioeconomic impacts in the coming years.

  1. http://robotics.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/scirobotics.aar7650
  2. http://robotics.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/scirobotics.aar7650
  3. https://cosmosmagazine.com/technology/dark-intentions-should-we-fear-ai-with-purpose
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