Robots are about to invade our lives.
From performing household chores, to entertaining and educating our children, to looking after the elderly, roboticists say we will soon be welcoming their creations into our homes and workplaces.
Researchers believe we are on the cusp of a robot revolution that will mirror the explosive growth of the computer revolution from the 1980s onwards.
They are developing new laws for robot behaviour, and designing new ways for humans and robots to interact.
"I think robotics technology will change who we are, just as eyeglasses and fire changed who we were before," says Rodney Brookes, robotics entrepreneur and former director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
Commercially available robots are already beginning to perform everyday tasks like vacuuming our floors.
The latest prototypes from Japan are able to help the elderly to get out of bed or get up after a fall. They can also remind them when to take medication, or even help wash their hair.
"Current robots are not human like. For example they are things like automated beds and wheelchairs," says celebrated roboticist Prof Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University, Japan. He believes the time is coming when robots start looking less like machines, and more like us.
"Everything is becoming automatic, and that means everything is a robot. People want to have a better interface."
"Elderly people don't like using a computer interface, but they can talk with a robot," says Prof Ishiguro.
"In the near future we are going to use more human-like robots, I really think so."
Prof Maja Mataric at the University of Southern California, one of the leading proponents of social caring robots, agrees. "I'm very excited about the fact that today in robotics we have machines that are sophisticated enough to be put together with people in a daily life setting," she says.
"A major point to keep in mind is that people will need human-machine interaction in the future."
The global population is living longer, and getting older, which presents new challenges.
"The question becomes: who will take care of everyone? While people will always be the best caregivers for people, there just aren't enough people. That's where robotic technology can really make a difference," says Prof Mataric.
Her group is developing robots to work with stroke patients, and elderly people undergoing cognitive changes.
The research team has found that people react well to a robot gym instructor, and seem to get less frustrated with it than with instructions given on a computer screen. The robot can act as a perfect trainer, with infinite patience.
"People say things like 'I prefer this robot to my husband! Can I take it home?'" according to Prof Mataric.
"In fact there's a really important point here, that as we create these care giving technologies, we're helping not only the people that need the care, but also the people caring for them. We can give them a break, and help them avoid burnout."
Welcome to the machine
People are going to have to like, and importantly trust robots before they welcome them into their homes, and several groups around the world are working on making it easier to communicate with them.
Much of human interaction takes place unconsciously, through body language. Gestures, eye contact, and concepts of personal space are all things that robots are being taught.
In learning about how people interact with machines, researchers are also discovering new roles for robots in our lives. Robots can communicate with humans in ways that other technology can not.
"If someone finds the robot to be more persuasive, more credible, that's going to affect how they interact with it," says Dr Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"We can now start to think about domains where it's the social interaction, which is the core means by which a robot helps someone, through motivating them, or giving positive reinforcement."
Dr Breazeal says that means robots could have applications in education, learning, and healthcare, where social support is important.
Roboticists have had impressive results with autistic children, who often find communication difficult. Children seem to be able to interact more easily with a robot 'buddy' than with other people.
Science fiction may have primed us for the coming robot revolution, but it has also given us an idea of the types of controls we may want to consider before welcoming robots into our lives and homes.
One of the most celebrated science fiction authors, Isaac Asimov, outlined 'Three Laws of Robotics' in a novel featuring human-like robots. The rules were designed to protect people from harm.
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
"Asimov's laws of robotics were, and remain, a fictional device" says Prof Alan Winfield from the University of the West of England.
"But if not those particular laws, then in the far future there will have to be something like Asimov's laws."
At present, robots are not sophisticated enough to be made to behave ethically. Prof Winfield says that means roboticists building them need to behave ethically instead.
The UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, together with the Arts and Humanities Research Council, has drafted a set of ethical principles for robot design - which can be summarised as follows:
- Robots should not be designed solely or primarily to kill or harm humans.
- Humans, not robots, are responsible agents. Robots are tools designed to achieve human goals.
- Robots should be designed in ways that assure their safety and security.
- Robots are artefacts; they should not be designed to exploit vulnerable users by evoking an emotional response or dependency. It should always be possible to tell a robot from a human.
- It should always be possible to find out who is legally responsible for a robot.
"At present this code is simply a set of ideas. It's out for debate and discussion," says Prof Winfield.
However he believes that they are ideas that people should be thinking about before the coming 'robot revolution'.
"In my view the principles are less important than the debate and the awareness around the issues that they provoke."