September 07, 2017

The robot: a friend or risk?

Federal Minister for Transport, Innovation and Technology Jörg Leichtfried and President of the Austrian Council for Robotics Sabine Köszegi

Federal Minister for Transport, Innovation and Technology Jörg Leichtfried and President of the Austrian Council for Robotics Sabine Köszegi

A recently established Austrian Council for Robotics will be dealing with important technical questions of the future. With Sabine Köszegi as president and Andreas Kugi as an expert, two members of TU Wien on board.

A drill has no social skills and a toaster is far from being able to learn. The robots of tomorrow will hardly have anything in common with such primitive devices. Artificial Intelligence allows for completely new ways of cooperation between humans and machines; future robots will not only run programs, but they will be able to learn automatically.

What does this change mean for us? How does this change our working environment? How should society deal with such new technologies? Federal Minister for Transport, Innovation and Technology Jörg Leichtfried has now set up a council which will deal with such questions in the next four years. Prof. Sabine Köszegi from the Institute for Management Sciences of TU Wien is the president of this council.

Interview with the Robot Council Chairman Sabine Köszegi

TU Wien: Robots and Artificial Intelligence - these topics cause many fears. Can you understand that?

Sabine Köszegi: Yes, definitely. It is a fascinating research area which sometimes reminds us of science fiction. One of my favorite movies is "Blade Runner", which is about robots that are so human-like that they cannot be distinguished from humans any more. It is interesting to think about what that means for society.

TU Wien: But when robots become extremely intelligent, it does not necessarily mean that they have to become human.

Sabine Köszegi: That's true, and that is also a highly discussed issue at the moment. The complementarity approach assumes that robots should not replace but support humans. In the future, they can increasingly undertake tasks that are too exhausting, too dangerous or too repetitive for people. Humans should thereby be able to concentrate on what they like or can do better than machines. But there are also other approaches. The Japanese robotist Hiroshi Ishiguro, for example, is working on humanoid robots with the aim of making them as human-like as possible.

TU Wien: What are the skills of this new generation of robots?

Sabine Köszegi: It is about setting up robots in a way that they are safe, predictable, and easy to use for humans. This also means that they need to acquire social skills and a high level of communication skills. Humans and machines will cooperate closely in the future and consequently the robot will take part in a wide range of workspaces.

TU Wien: Is this a paradigm shift - or merely the continuation of the technologization process that has lasted since the invention of the weaving loom?

Sabine Köszegi: No, this is already a disruptive element. We are actually at a point where a dramatic change is emerging. Machines capable of learning, not only following mechanically prescribed rules, but adapting  themselves to their environment and making autonomous decisions, this is something completely new. When we look at the smartphone and to what extent it is changing our society, we can only guess what the consequences will be when intelligent robots become commonplace in a variety of areas of our society. We are going to address these questions in the Robot Council.

TU Wien: Can this technological change be designed at all?

Sabine Köszegi: I think so. It is called "responsible robotics" - which does not mean to necessarily implement everything that is technically possible, but what is socially desirable. In areas, such as gene technology, a legal framework has been agreed upon, that means certain technical possibilities have been left unused. But, of course, the Robot Council does not just want to warn, but also to encourage: the question is where Austria can set its own priorities, and in which area our industry can have a leading role.

Prof. Sabine Köszegi is the head of the Department of Labor and Organization at the Institute of Management Sciences and Academic Director of the Professional MBA Entrepreneurship & Innovation. Beginning with October, she will also spend time at Aarhus University, taking part in the international research project "Integrative Social Robotics" (INSOR), which focuses on the socio-cultural and socio-economic aspects of robotics.


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