According to a study presented by an international panel of experts and published in the journal Science Robotics, there are several (and major) challenges in the application of robotics in society.
Apart from all the areas of application of robotics, which are many, the research places special emphasis on social robotics and robotics associated with medicine as specific development areas in order to highlight substantial impacts, both on health as in society, which will bring overcoming these great challenges or challenges.
Finally, one of the challenges is related to responsible innovation and how ethics and safety should be carefully considered as we develop the technology.
The study collects major obstacles not yet resolved in robotics. These pressing challenges were compiled during an open online survey and restricted by a panel of experts, led by Guang-Zhong Yang, director of the Hamlyn Center for Robotic Surgery at Imperial College London (United Kingdom).
Four of the challenges are related to the development of technology that will reshape the future of robotics, going beyond gears and motors. These include the creation of new materials and manufacturing methods; using brain-computer interfaces to increase human capabilities; development of low-cost but long-lasting batteries and energy collection schemes; and use nature as inspiration, either by translating biological principles into engineering design or by integrating living components into robotic structures.
Let’s look at all the challenges that robots face.
The laws of robotics
Isaac Asimov established in his science fiction novels half a century ago that: ‘A robot will not harm a human being or, by inaction, allow a human being to suffer harm. A robot must obey the orders given by human beings, except if these orders come into conflict with the 1st Law.
The laws of robotics fall short of reality. Thus, if we manage to overcome these challenges in robotics that we will list now, we will be sure that it will have a huge scientific, political and socioeconomic impact on our society in the next five or ten years.
Robotics is very wide
The field of robotics is broad and covers many underlying and associated technological areas. The identification of these challenges was a difficult task, explain the authors of the study published in Science Robotics, and there are many sub-topics not listed that are equally important for future development. The list that we will review is therefore not exclusive or exhaustive, but they draw a work scenario to start working on.
First challenge: New materials
The first challenge of robotics is to achieve innovative materials and manufacturing schemes to create a new generation of multifunctional robots, energy-efficient, compatible and as autonomous as biological organisms.
Second challenge: Biohybrid and bioinspired robots
The second challenge is to overcome not only the manufacture of biohybrid and bioinspired robots, on which we are already working but to make them work like natural systems; that is, transfer the fundamental principles of living beings to engineering design rules or integrate living components into synthetic structures to create robots that function as natural systems.
Third challenge: New sources of energy
It will be crucial to develop new energy sources and battery technologies to move these machines. Through new battery technologies and energy collection schemes, we will solve the problem of lasting operation for future mobile robots.
Fourth challenge: Robot swarms
The swarms of robots will allow the simplest and least expensive modular units to be reconfigured in a team, depending on the task to be performed, while being as effective as a larger and specific monolithic robot for each task.
Fifth challenge: Navigation and exploration in extreme environments
Robotics scientists will also have to create machines capable of navigating and exploring in barely known extreme environments, such as the deep sea. In these hostile environments, it will be crucial that robots have the ability to adapt, recover from failures.
Sixth challenge: artificial intelligence
Learning to learn is one of the fundamental aspects of artificial intelligence applied to robotics, as well as advanced pattern recognition and model-based reasoning, as well as trying to conceive intelligence with common sense.
Seventh challenge: Brain-computer interfaces
In the field of biomedicine, advancing in brain-computer interfaces (BCI) will be crucial, since neuroprosthetics, functional electrical stimulation devices and exoskeletons will have to be controlled without problems.
Eighth challenge: Social interaction
Social interaction, which includes human social dynamics and moral norms, will be another important challenge that we will have to overcome. The fact that robots can truly integrate with our social life, showing empathy and natural social behaviours is one of the most incredible and expected challenges for robotics enthusiasts.
Ninth challenge: Medical robotics
Medical robotics is another goal. With increasingly higher levels of autonomy for machines, legal, ethical and technical challenges must also be considered, as well as developing a micro-robotics that addresses the real demands in medicine. Always without forgetting ethics and legality.
Tenth challenge: Ethics and security
Ethics and security for responsible innovation in robotics. We cannot ignore the fact that in all robotic innovation both premises must be present: ethics and security. According to experts, they should be applied in social policies and norms as soon as possible, while technologies are still primary.
Solve problems before it’s too late
Precisely researchers recommend that we address these complex concerns from the beginning, while technology is still in development. Likewise, we must bear in mind that we should be more concerned with human ignorance than with artificial superintelligence: “Humans, not technology, are both a solution and will continue to be in the foreseeable future,” the scientists say.
A great cultural change
Addressing these great challenges also requires great cultural change. For example, to meet the challenges of designing bio-inspired and biohybrid robots, engineers, physicists, applied mathematicians and biologists must form mutually beneficial interdisciplinary collaborations. To extract principles, understand a biological design and use biological material effectively, it is first necessary to understand that evolution is not engineering. Particularly important for robotics is the development of a synergy where biological principles inspire the design of novel robots or components, and these robots (or their parts) are used by biologists as physical models to better test the hypotheses of biological relationships structure-function
Challenges of the next decades
According to Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of New South Wales (Australia) Toby Walsh, in his eyes, a great challenge in the near future of robotics could be to build a robot to discover life on the moons of the solar system or “Enter a teenager’s room, pick up clothes from the floor, wash it, fold it and put it in the closet.”