A ROBOT can now deliver pizza, another can carry out life-saving surgery, while another is ready for dispatch along the Great Barrier Reef to detect and control the devastating Crown of Thorn starfish.
The new technologies – robots and artificial intelligence – are making our world more connected, saving lives and even protecting the environment.
But as these technologies enter our homes and our workplaces what are the social costs?
Are we witnessing new technologies changing history, taking our jobs, creating evil?
Social robotics pioneer Professor Mary-Ann Williams, who spoke last month at the World Science Festival Brisbane 2017 (WSFB), said robots were already integral to the average Australian’s daily life.
“A smartphone is more like a robot than a phone, the sensory technology responds and changes to the human it is closest to, people are already adapting to robotic technology and will continue to do so as it develops,” Prof Williams, director of Disruptive Innovation at the University of Technology, Sydney, told a packed crowd inside the Griffith Conservatorium.
And millennials should prepare for cars without drivers, aircraft without pilots and skies full of drones.
In a new book Connected World, Fr Philip Larrey, a philosophy professor at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University, explores technology’s influence on society, and the possible human costs.
Fr Larrey examines the impact and long-term consequences of increasingly advanced technology and the rise of artificial intelligence on society.
During a presentation of the book in Rome on March 28, Australian Cardinal George Pell (pictured), who is prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, said that although new technologies can promote employment and new opportunities in an ailing economy, if used improperly, they can also lead to tragedy and affect the course of history.
As the use of modern technology and artificial intelligence increased in the world, those who suffered its effects due to lack of employment would be unable to “cope with additional misfortune”, Cardinal Pell said.
“Drugs and alcohol enhance the tragedy, but certainly the decline in social capital; for example, family breakdown, extra-nuptial births, widespread pornography, addictive computer games and the decline in religious faith and practice,” he said.
Cardinal Pell acknowledged that while he was not an expert in the field, the consequence of artificial intelligence on society was an issue “I am interested (in), and increasingly so”.
The Australian prelate said that while computers and robots were never evil in themselves, “they can be used to perform actions we rightly call evil”.
Citing St John Paul II’s words on the dignity of work, Cardinal Pell said governments must contemplate whether “advances in technology will leave more jobs destroyed than created or vice versa”.
“Would a democratic government ever be reconciled to a situation where an inactive majority receive a living allowance?” he asked.
It was “a spectacular new option for a welfare society of unhappy dependents”.
As the free market faced new challenges with the rise of technologies, Cardinal Pell said, governments must ensure “that economies aren’t trapped by their own successes”.
During WSFB, Monash University’s political philosophy specialist Professor Rob Sparrow addressed the same dignity-of-work issue, questioning whether Australians would sit idle as robots revolutionised life as we knew it.
“We would never let people we haven’t elected into power tell us they are going to radically change our social world, but when engineers tell us that the robot revolution is upon us and we can’t do anything to stop it, suddenly we are idle in the development of our society? I doubt that,” he said.
In his academic writings, Prof Sparrow has explored the ethics of robots and their potential use in warfare.
“The new enthusiasm for robots in military and policy circles has led to philosophers and ethicists paying increased attention to issues surrounding the military uses of robots,” he wrote in a co-authored paper in the Naval War College Review last year.
“In particular, there is now a flourishing literature on the ethics of drone warfare and an emerging literature on the ethics of the development and deployment of autonomous weapon systems.”
Prof Sparrow has conjured the prospect of robot armies and unmanned fleets of ships and submarines for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Some of the systems under United States military development include solar and wave-powered surfboards to gather meteorological and oceanographic data.
Queensland at the forefront of robotics
The Queensland Futures Summit held in Brisbane last August heard that this state has some of the world’s best talent in robotics and drones.
Blue Ocean Robotics Australia chief executive and co-founder Ivan Storr has an eye to using robots in hospitals and on building sites.
“Robots are going to take away jobs but in a positive way,” Mr Storr said during the summit.
“They will remove the jobs that people don’t want to do, freeing them up to improve service levels.”
In Brisbane last year, pizza company Domino’s created a worldwide buzz when it used a prototype robot to deliver pizzas, which the company forecasts will boost overall demand and create more jobs, rather than replace human with robots.
The self-driving Domino’s Robotic Unit or DRU travels on bike paths and footpaths to find the most efficient, fastest route.
Further trials are to take place in Germany and the Netherlands in the next two months.
“We see a place for autonomous units working alongside other delivery methods including cars, scooters and e-bikes (as well as the advanced jobs these units will also create),” the company’s Brisbane-based communications manager Nathan Stolz said.
Key research is also being undertaken at Queensland University of Technology’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
QUT’s robotics professor Jonathan Roberts said jobs would change as robots took over many of the manual processes.
“It is like when we had mechanisation,” Professor Roberts said during the summit.
“Ninety per cent of the horses were gone within 10 years and so were related jobs.”
Prof Roberts is developing technology for medical and healthcare robotics and in particular has an interest in the use of robot vision to help with robotic surgery.
Making an appearance at WSFB was another QUT robot creation – a marine robot called COTSbot (Crown-Of-Thorns Starfish robot), which could help save the Great Barrier Reef.
Visitors to QUT’s Street Science tent were able to fire COTSbot’s injector arm to see how the robot delivers a fatal dose of bile salts, which kills the starfish, responsible for an estimated 40 per cent of the reef’s total decline in coral cover.
Creator and QUT field roboticist Dr Matthew Dunbabin said COTSbot would soon be undergoing a reef-saving transformation.
“Over the next few months we’ll be busy building the next generation of robo reef protector – RangerBot – a smaller, low-cost, vision-enabled multi-purpose marine management tool,” Dr Dunbabin said.
“We see great potential in this versatile robot which, in the hands of reef communities, will transform the way we protect these critical environments against a wide range of dangers.”