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When will it be possible to replace people entirely with robots?



Demonstrator Assistenzroboter ANNIE Fraunhofer IFF

With the assistance robot ANNIE researchers at the Fraunhofer IFF test advanced technologies for direct cooperation between human and robot. Photo: Fraunhofer IFF

As it now stands, robots will never replace people entirely. Although they are mechanically superior to us in many ways, they lack elementary capabilities such as our cognitive flexibility, intuition, creativity, emotions and curiosity. These traits, along with the human drive to try out new things and even to be unconventional in the process, are some of the mainsprings of our evolution. In short, robots don’t dream. That’s significant because there probably wouldn’t be any progress in a world in which robots have fully replaced people. Although research on the development of artificial intelligence is advancing quickly, we still seem to have a long road ahead of us before a machine actually paints a picture of its own, writes a poem, does research or even leads a team of human colleagues. The open question is do we want that in the first place?

Nevertheless, more and more robots will soon be supporting and assisting us in many domains of life, and not just small cleaning or entertainment robots. A new age of robotics has also begun in industry in particular. New technologies are making it possible for humans and robots to work directly with each other, hand in hand. In the future, skilled workers and robotic assistance systems will be collaborating even closer and helping each other.
The reasons are obvious. Robots have greater strength, endurance, speed and precision than people. They can perform jobs that are very monotonous, hazardous to health or quickly tiresome. They don’t have any problem with hazardous environments and don’t make any mistakes. They are thus the perfect partners for us whenever something has to be done for which we aren’t actually made. That makes robots very valuable to us.

Their value is also rising in the context of the demographic change we are experiencing. Our society is aging and new blood is frequently in short supply. Robots can partly compensate for this shortage by truly helping us out.

To this end, research and industry are intensively developing new robotic systems and safety and information technologies. Close at our side, robots will lighten our workload as we work together with them safely and communicate them nearly as easily as with human colleagues. This will effectively combine the cognitive skills of humans and the physical qualities of automated systems. The outcome will be more efficient, flexible and adaptive manufacturing systems centered around humans, though. Robot assistants could also soon lighten personal care assistants’ workloads, perform simple services or execute simple jobs in the medical sector. Humans will increasingly take on monitoring tasks and control functions but will not be replaced. Robots will merely fill the gaps we let them fill, willingly and to our advantage.

This question was answered Univ.-Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Prof. E. h. Dr. h. c. mult. Michael Schenk, Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation IFF.