/ 15 December 2008

Love, labour and the robot armies of the future

The next decade will see the world become increasingly reliant on robotic labour, according to researchers, who warn that there could also be some unintended social consequences.

“Just as we depend on mobile phones and cars in our daily lives today, the next 15 years will see mass hybridisation between humans and robots,” says Antonio Lopez Pelaez, a professor of sociology at Spain’s National Distance Learning University.

He is co-author of a study predicting an evolution of the so-called “digital divide” — the gap between those who have access to advanced technology and communications such as the internet — and those who do not.

The paper, published in the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change, suggests 40% of the world’s armies will become automated by 2020, as well as a possibility of robotic body implants being commonplace.

Japan leads the world in robot density, with 295 per 10 000 workers, but Asia as a whole lags behind Europe and the US. According to Spectrum magazine, Europe has the world’s biggest number of robots, an average of 50 per 10 000 workers, primarily in the car industry, and in foundries and chemical plants. Britain has an average of 40, behind Germany, Sweden and Italy.

The International Federation of Robotics predicts the next three years will see significant growth in robot use, particularly in the home and for personal use.

A fourfold increase in robots for entertainment and leisure technology is foreseen for 2011, through a convergence of robotics, computers and home entertainment. The Spanish study concurs, even suggesting many people could become reliant on robotic companions over time.

“A robot might be a more effective partner and a better person than the humans we actually have in our immediate lives,” said Pelaez. “Just as you can see dog owners talking to their pets today, soon we will be talking to robots.”

The potential for an emotional connection with a talking machine has been the subject of many studies. A book by the British futurist David Levy, Love and Sex with Robots, predicted that by 2050 humans would routinely enjoy both romance and sex with a robot partner.

“There are millions of people out there in the world who for one reason or another can’t establish normal relationships with humans,” he said. “This is not science fiction.” – guardian.co.uk