Much has been made of the threat that robots pose to our jobs, as rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI) make them capable of taking over a widening range of white-collar professions. But there is another concern.
The new generation of collaborative robots designed to interact with the human beings they work independently alongside – which are more accurately known as cobots – are becoming so much like us in appearance and behaviour that people are becoming attached to them.
Even robots that do not look like humans are being anthropomorphised as people project emotions and personalities onto them, making them the companions that up until this decade were only imagined in popular science-fiction novels and films.
A few years ago, the US military in Iraq held an official funeral complete with a 21-gun salute for a bomb disposal robot that was blown up while on duty.
The robot, Boomer, was mourned like a fellow soldier and decorated with two prestigious medals for bravery – the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
There are many other examples. In September last year, employees at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation threw a retirement party for five robots that had delivered the mail in their offices for a quarter of a century, beeping endearingly to warn people to get out of their way in corridors.
And another issue has emerged – the legal status of sophisticated cobots with advanced AI. In October 2016 Saudi Arabia granted citizenship to Sophia, a social humanoid robot developed by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics, that can walk, sustain eye contact, recognise faces and process speech.
She has made public appearances across the world, interacted with celebrities and been interviewed by journalists.
She has also sparked outrage among Saudi women activists who feel she has been granted more rights and privileges than them – she doesn’t even have to wear a headscarf.
Scientists were alarmed when the EU proposed more than a year ago to grant sophisticated and autonomous robots legal status as “electric persons”.
A team of 150 experts in robotics, AI, law, medical science and ethics weighed in on the debate in April with an open letter to the EU advising against the move, saying it would give robots human rights and absolve their operators of responsibility for what the machines might do.
Nonetheless, cobots have moved from the workplace into the home, playing an important role in service industries that require empathy or at least sensitivity to human emotions.
Some have become caretakers for the elderly, reminding them when to take their medication or to exercise, recommending activities, and playing games to keep their users mentally active.
Others teach mathematics and language in children’s classrooms, adjusting questions to the appropriate skill levels, providing feedback to human teachers about problems, and remaining patient with repetition and errors.
Some are helping autistic children to improve their communication difficulties along with cognitive and social skills.
Robots have long been used in heavy industry, most notably automobile manufacturing.
Cobots are smaller, lighter, less expensive, and more adaptable to changes in demand – making them more affordable and practical for small- and medium-sized businesses.
Figures vary widely, but research on transformative technologies from a number of companies has identified collaborative robots as one of the fastest-growing segments of robotic systems, far outstripping the industrial robots, which are dominant now.
Loup Ventures Management, a venture capital firm, predicted last year that the number of cobots shipped worldwide will increase by a compound annual growth rate of 61.2%, reaching a market value of $9.05bn by 2025.
It sees the traditional market for industrial robotics growing by 11.8% on an annual basis to more than $33bn over the next 10 years.
According to Martin Hägele at the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) Service Robot Group, the growing interest in service robots – which are commonly used in medical, logistics, and field services – is partly due to the variety and number of new start-ups, which currently account for about 29% of all robot companies.
Large companies are increasingly investing in robotics, often through the acquisition of start-ups, he said in a report late last year.
Most of the demand for robots worldwide comes from China, Japan, the US, South Korea and Germany.
Asia has the highest rate of global installations, and according to the IFR the Republic of Korea has the highest robot density in the manufacturing industry – 631 units per 10 000 employees, or eight times the global average.
But where does this leave Africa?
Richard Li, a Singapore-based partner with Steel Advisory Partners, warned in an article for the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies that the continent’s nascent manufacturing industry is already facing imminent threats from robots.
“The competitive advantages of Africa with its large labour force will be eroded and eventually vanish, as other countries with a strong manufacturing base retool their factories with the latest technologies,” he says.
Mariam Isa is a freelance journalist who came to SA in 2000 as chief financial correspondent for Reuters news agency after working in the Middle East, the UK and Sweden, covering topics ranging from war to oil, as well as politics and economics. She joined Business Day as economics editor in 2007 and left in 2014 to write on a wider range of subjects for several publications in SA and in the UK.