Invasion of the friendly robots

Robotics is this year’s theme for Delft University of Technology. It was introduced at the university’s 174th birthday celebration on January 8, 2016, by the inauguration of Honorary Doctor Sebastian Thrun (known for Google’s autonomous car) and the publication of the book ‘Robotics for future presidents’.

Behind the slightly weird title hides a book that is more than simply a business card of the TU Delft Robotics Institute. Instead of putting their well-known research projects in the spotlight, the editorial board sent three science writers out to experts elsewhere. That insight makes the book a valuable document for anyone interested in what our future with robots may look like. Because, like it or not, robots are no longer restricted to shielded areas in manufacturing industries. The automated assembly line in a car factory has long been emblematic of robots: fast, furious, inexhaustible but not very flexible nor friendly. According to the experts interviewed for this book, robots are definitely on their way out of the factory and into our midst. This transformation opens a spate of questions on vision, behaviour, learning, interaction and ethics of robots, and that's what this book is about.

Another refreshing feature of the book is that it allows for disparate views. When discussing robot swarms, for example (chapter 6), Marco Dorigo (Free University Brussels) is pitched against Vijay Kumar (University of Pennsylvania). They both work on swarm behaviour of robots. Dorigo is perfectly happy acknowledging that engineers cannot fully predict interactions with a swarm (of driving, crawling or flying robots). The much more strict Kumar stresses safety comes first with his unmanned helicopters. "If it is not predictable, humans will not trust it," he said.

The ethics are discussed by Patrick Lin (California Polytechnic) and Neil Sharkey (University of Sheffield). Where Lin argues that enhanced machines also brings greater responsibility, Sharkey is more outspoken as an activist against armed robots. It's worth remembering here that since 2004 drone attacks have killed between 2500 and 4000 people in Pakistan alone. That's an aspect that future presidents should know.

By contrast, the TU Delft Robotics Institute profiles itself as a centre that develops friendly robots for humans. The form varies from an exoskeleton, via a computer workshop for small businesses, flying and crawling robots for rescue operations to an ambulance drone with an airborne defibrillator. The Delft Robotics Institute studies how humans and robots can join forces and it has chosen 'not to actively develop military robot technology'.

• Bas den Hond, Bennie Mols, Bram Vermeer, Robotics for future presidents, leading experts on the next revolution in automation, 144 pages, TU Delft Robotics Institute, 2016. Order a copy for 29.95 Euros via robotics.forfuturepresidents.com