LIVING AND WORKING WITH ROBOTS - ARE WE READY?

Are we ready for living and working with robots? 

Society driven innovation

Over the past years Civitta has been working with projects advocating for the technological research and innovation that is driven by society and is aware of its societal implications. It is widely accepted that technological development incl. robotics is a source of innovation and economic growth. Importantly wider adoption of various technologies can help to tackle societal challenges.

However, the technological change has been extremely rapid. There is a big part of society, whose childhood and youth years were completely different from what we know today. Cell phones and computers are speeding up our lives with fast and world-wide communication opportunities. We are surrounded by technology at home and workplace. Automation, robotization, digitalization – these are one of the few buzzwords.

Is society ready for that? For speeding up even more, changing the way we live and work alongside technology and ... robots.

In the Robotics4EU project we have seen that people are in general optimistic about the uptake of robots, but as soon as they start thinking in depth, ethical, privacy, security, legal and socio-economic issues arise. Thus, the question is how to make sure that technology is human-centric and driven by societal needs. Under what circumstances are we ready to accept the change that is happening?

The future is now, and the future is inclusive, the question is how to be part of it. How to create the world where you want to live. And here is the answer: co-create it. So, we did.

Robotics community analyses and citizen consultations

Since January 2021 we have been implementing the Robotics4EU project that aims to ensure a more widespread adoption of (AI-based) robots in healthcare, inspection and maintenance of infrastructure, agri-food, and agile production. The core concept of the project is that technological research and innovation must be driven by society by considering the societal impact that it has. Thus, Robotics4EU is advocating for the integration of the non-technological aspects such as ethics, legal, socioeconomic, data, privacy, gender to the technology development and involving the end-users, either citizens or professional users of robots to the process.

To understand the needs of the robotics community, we conducted an online survey that gathered 1232 responses from policy makers, the robotics community and general population from 15 countries. In addition, we had 60 interviews to deepen our understanding. Importantly, we also had consultations with 742 citizens who gathered in 12 countries across Europe, USA, and South-Korea to discuss robots.

Engagement and regulations are the key 

Main takeaways from the survey and citizen consultations are that stakeholders and citizens want to be engaged and informed what concerns the future of robots. Importantly, the collaboration between policymakers and robotics producers needs to be improved and policymakers need to be made aware about the specific needs of the robotics community.  Further, the citizen consultation found that most participants believed that robotics should be subject to both limitations and regulation. A takeaway from the consultation was that 85% of the participants feel that it is important that citizens’ considerations are considered when developing and regulating robotic solutions.

Technological unemployment as the biggest fear 

Saying that, by far, technological unemployment is the biggest socio-economic concern mentioned by all stakeholder groups and the citizens. Although the consultation found that the participating citizens were generally positive towards robotics seeing that this technology can make life easier and more convenient for people overall, there is fear that the advancement of robotics could increase unemployment and destabilize the job market. This is an important message to everyone developing working with robots either from the regulative, research or business perspective. There have been historically similar concerns regarding the breakthrough of different machines. Thus, it is crucial to address this fear by showcasing the advantages that robots bring to workplaces.

Next to that the identified top concerns affecting the robotics uptake were, according to the stakeholders, safety (in ethics), surveillance (in data), harmonized regulation (in legal) and the lack of education (in education and engagement). 

Robots’ acceptability

When inquiring about robots’ acceptability, stakeholders tend to believe industrial robots (non-collaborative) performing specific tasks are already widely accepted. They considered that overall, the first hindrance towards integration of intelligent robots in society lies in their technological immaturity. Once such robots have proven their usefulness and efficiency in performing a task, a focus must be given on the absence of direct negative impact on the user (safety, privacy, understandability, etc.). 

The biggest worries of citizens are related to military and defense robotics, robotics in healthcare, and robotics with a high level of artificial intelligence.

In developing robots that interact with humans the focus should be in providing smoother interactions to provide robots that are more user-friendly. They must have a better sensitivity to their environment (more sensors, more complex decisions, more interactivity).

Finally, safety and privacy are challenges which stand out as concerns. Robots must be safe, they must be able to deal correctly with hazardous environments, and above all they must react properly/safely in the vicinity of humans. In addition, privacy of individuals should be ensured, and the discreetness of social robots should be a critical design element.

Assessing the societal readiness of robots

To live and work alongside technology, societal acceptance is crucial. To make the change happen, practical tools must be available. 

Thus, the Robotics4EU project will develop a tool that producers, end users, regulatory bodies, and other relevant stakeholders can use to assess the societal readiness of a robot. It is a model that enables us to assess the maturity of robots before and after their production.  

In this context, maturity refers to the societal readiness of robotics solutions, and it highlights to what extent the robot meets society’s ethical values and its economic, legal and social needs. Importantly, the maturity score must be self-explanatory and economically realistic to maximize its uptake by industry.

The way forward

To ensure widespread adoption of robotics in Europe by following European values is not an easy task given the worldwide technological competition. The value-based processes in society take time, neither the behavioral change nor the change of mindset will happen overnight. It happens step by step, person by person. 

To act, Robotics4EU will engage professional end-users and citizens in the robot’s development process. We will bring together companies and end-users to test and discuss the robotics solutions together. 

The greatest innovations happen at the nexus of different disciplines when people with diverse backgrounds are brought together to join the forces for societal good. Civitta is proud to be part of that future shaping process.

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Robotics4EU project is funded by the European Commission Horizon 2020 programme under grant agreement No 101017283. To the project results presented above the following organisations have contributed: Civitta Estonia (coordinator of the project), Danish Board of Technology, National Laboratory for Meteorology (LNE, France), Agri-food Lithuania, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Robotex, Globaz SA.

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