Spot is a four-legged robot from Boston Dynamics that has received a fair amount of mention in recent news. This is because it was used to patrol Singapore’s Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park where it served two important roles. One, it broadcast a reminder for visitors to follow physical distancing rules, which presumably had a beneficial effect on compliance rates. Two, it carried multiple cameras throughout the site, collecting information that can be used to estimate the number of visitors. Spot is just one of the robots that Singapore is using this way, though it remains to be seen whether it and its robotic counterpart OR-3 will be used on a permanent basis. The argument can be made that Spot is an excellent example of the potential benefits that can be had from the widespread use of robots:
Results-wise, robots possess a number of important advantages when compared to their human counterparts. For instance, robots cannot become either bored or tired of their responsibilities, meaning that they can perform the same task over and over without a loss of efficacy and efficiency. Something that can be very important when it comes to anything repetitive such as, say, reminding people to follow the rules. On top of that, it should be mentioned that robots can be overseen by humans, thus enabling robotic results while making it possible for humans to intervene should something out of the ordinary come up. In fact, Spot comes with a remote control feature, which is an excellent example of this kind of human oversight.
When it comes to the COVID-19 crisis, the single biggest benefit of robots might be safety. After all, the novel coronavirus has become such a huge issue because it is so good at jumping from person to person, meaning that it isn’t just a threat to park visitors but also park employees. Broadcasting the reminder is a good way to boost compliance rates by reminding people of the rules as well as telling people that other people are watching them. However, using a human means putting said individual at risk, not least because the guidelines for physical distancing aren’t guaranteed to provide them with total protection. Even worse, if someone does get infected by the novel coronavirus but remains undetected while infectious, they could spread the novel coronavirus to a lot of their fellow employees. Something that could have a devastating effect on their workplace’s ability to function at all. By using a robot, the people responsible for overseeing Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park can reducing the need for a human to perform physical patrols, thus reducing the chances of the novel coronavirus making its way to them. Certainly, it is possible for robots to run into various issues. However, even if that happens, the consequences when a robot run into issues are much less serious than the consequences when a person runs into issues.
In the short run, robots can do more than their human counterparts with less input. However, there is another way that they can produce savings that is very relevant under current circumstances. Simply put, when employees become sick because of either the novel coronavirus or some other health issue, that comes at a considerable cost to their employer. To an extent, this is because of the lost productivity. However, there are other costs as well. Furthermore, health problems can be horrendous for society, not least because of their impact on everyone around those with the health problems. By using robots rather than humans, this can prevent said issue. Having said that, the argument can be made that Spot is an excellent example of the potential concerns of the widespread use of robots as well.
For starters, there is the issue of privacy. As mentioned earlier, Spot carried a number of cameras, which can be used to record a lot of information. Due to this, the people behind its use had to reassure concerned individuals that the cameras could not be used to either identify specific individuals or collect personal information. However, even if this is the case, there is no way why similar robots can’t be equipped with better cameras in other contexts.
Of course, this isn’t just an issue with robots. For example, there are countries that have seen serious debates over the upsides and downsides of installing security cameras in public. Likewise, it is no secret that a wide range of websites are used to collect huge amounts of information about their users, which can be used to produce very accurate and thus very unsettling insights into who they are as well as what motivates them. However, robots have a unique problem in that they are very approachable in a way that those other things are not. In short, people like to anthropomorphize things, so it should come as no surprise to learn that this is very common when it comes to robots. One excellent example would be how people apparently give names to their Roombas. Another excellent example would be how soldiers have been observed getting very attached to military robots, so much so that they feel anger and even sadness when those military robots get destroyed in the course of their duties. Due to this, it is possible that people will let their attachment to robots get in the way of making accurate assessments of them. Something that could lead to breaches of privacy as well as other serious issues as the use of robots becomes more and more widespread.
Besides this, there are a lot of parties that have mentioned the potential for robots to cause serious job losses in the not too distant future. Essentially, robots are becoming more and more capable, meaning that they are expected to become capable of replacing white collar jobs. Something that promises to put a lot of people out of work. This is no idle threat because automation devastated blue collar jobs decades ago, with the result that some areas still haven’t recovered from said occurrence. Certainly, people can retrain themselves to make themselves employable in the post-automation world, but change of that scale is fundamentally painful. Still, this is something coming up rather than something here now, meaning that it is of secondary concern compared to more pressing issues.