Robots lack common sense

Robots may be able to replace a pilot, but they do not know how to pick a toy dropped on the floor and put it back into its box, according to academy researcher Veikko Sariola.

Robots have already replaced people in many jobs where hard work is carried out under difficult conditions. Now, many people worry whether their own work can be easily taken over by robots.

Academy researcher Veikko Sariola, working at the Tampere University of Technology’s Department of Automation Science and Engineering, offers consolation to those worried about the future.

“We are quite far from the point where robots would be able to carry out everyday chores.”

Sariola recalls a robot competition where the best robots in the world demonstrated their skills.

“Many had trouble just standing, not to mention being able to climb a ladder or anything like that.”

Robots are quite skilled in work where they can repeat predetermined tasks. A robot could work as a waiter in a particular location, but it is much harder to imagine a robot that could retrieve and return the dishes to the correct places anywhere.

Robots’ common sense also leaves otherwise much to be desired. If a person sees a misplaced toy lying on a shop floor and an empty box on a shelf next to it, he or she knows to pick up the toy and put it into the box.

“From a robot’s perspective, this would be an impossible problem”, Sariola says.

A robot does not get tired of repetition

Even if robots are clumsy in many practical matters, they are on the other hand very precise in following what they have learned. Robots are fine assistants for doctors when, for instance, the patient’s disease needs to be deducted from the symptoms. In the same way, robots can be very efficient at office tasks requiring repetition where incoming information is evaluated and reacted upon. Such tasks are often associated with, for instance, banking and insurance.

Robots could also quite well take full responsibility for flying an aeroplane. According to Sariola, approximately 80 per cent of aviation accidents are due to errors made by the pilot.

“If robots flew planes, there would probably be fewer accidents. Still, most people would not like to board a plane without a pilot”, Sariola says.

Sariola fears that the development of robotics may even be hindered by the fact that it is easier for people to accept accidents caused by other people than by robots. Robot-related accidents will also inevitably increase as more and more complicated machines become common.

“This may lead to requirements for long tests on robots before being allowed to the market, the same way as with medicines.”

The appearance of humanoid robots will take time

When talking about robots, we should forget for the time being the first image that comes into mind: the human-like machine portrayed in science-fiction films.

“Humanoid robots will presumably have a small role in the transformation of the workplace. So far, they are clumsy and difficult to program”, Sariola says.

Unambiguously defining a “robot” is in fact rather difficult. For instance, a surgical robot used in operations on patients has limited intelligence; it operates strictly according to the surgeon’s commands. As such, it is not an actual robot if intelligence and independence are set as criteria.

Veikko Sariola, along with many other top experts, is taking part in the Hyvä paha digitalisaatio (The Good and Bad in Digitalisation) documentary series from DNA Business. Read more about the series here! (In Finnish)