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Robotics Challenges Range From Battery Power and Medicine to Ethics

The 10 grand challenges of robotics, according to Yang et al. The innermost circle contains challenges more central to building and improving robots, while concepts that are more applied and peripheral are farther from the center. Social and medical robots are set apart as larger fields of robotic application. Credit: Yang et al., Sci. Robot. 3, eaar7650 (2018)

February 13, 2018      

The technologies underpinning robots must evolve, while social and medical applications must expand, all while respecting ethical development guidelines, according to a group of scientists that has issued 10 grand robotics challenges for the field, evoking DARPA’s challenges for autonomous vehicles and humanoid robots. (Click here to enlarge top image.)

The 17 researchers from the U.S. and Europe published an article in the journal Science Robotics that outlines challenges that are particularly promising in terms of major breakthroughs, significant research, or socioeconomic impact in five to 10 years. The journal recently marked its first anniversary. The authors noted progress in robotics applications ranging from medical micromachines to platforms for use in the deep sea and outer space.

New materials and engineering are among the grand robotics challenges.

New materials and manufacturing schemes promise a new generation of robots that are power-efficient, multifunctional, compliant, and autonomous in ways that are similar to biological organisms. Credit: Alice Kitterman/AAAS

“We want to stimulate the discussion on what are the fundamental technologies that will really reshape the future of robotics, beyond gears and motors, and also what are the major hurdles that we need to overcome in order to make the future of robots better integrated with our society,” said corresponding author Guang-Zhong Yang, a professor at the Hamlyn Centre for Robotic Surgery at Imperial College London.

“The motto of Science Robotics is ‘Science for Robotics and Robotics for Science,'” added Yang. “That is, how to leverage the latest developments in basic sciences to drive the future development of robotics, and in return, to use the latest advances in robot technologies to support basic science research and make new discoveries — ranging from astronomy, oceanography, to life science and medicine.”

10 grand robotics challenges

Based on a survey of robot experts, the authors outlined the latest developments in 10 key areas, as well as where the field will go next. The 10 robotics challenges as described in the paper are:

  1. New materials and fabrication schemes for developing a new generation of robots that are multi-functional, power-efficient, compliant, and autonomous in ways akin to biological organisms.
  2. Biohybrid and bioinspired robots that translate fundamental biological principles into engineering design rules or integrate living components into synthetic structures to create robots that perform like natural systems.
  3. New power sources, battery technologies, and energy-harvesting schemes for long-lasting operation of mobile robots.
  4. Robot swarms that allow simpler, less expensive, modular units to be reconfigured into a team, depending on the task that needs to be performed, while being as effective as a larger, task-specific, monolithic robot.
  5. Navigation and exploration in extreme environments that are not only unmapped but also poorly understood, with abilities to adapt, learn, and recover and handle failures.
  6. Fundamental aspects of artificial intelligence for robotics, including learning how to learn, combining advanced pattern recognition and model-based reasoning, and developing intelligence with common sense.
  7. Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) for seamless control of peripheral neuroprostheses, functional electric stimulation devices, and exoskeletons.
  8. Social interaction that understands human social dynamics and moral norms and that can be truly integrated with our social life showing empathy and natural social behaviors.
  9. Medical robotics with increasing levels of autonomy but with due consideration of legal, ethical, and technical challenges, as well as microrobotics tackling real demands in medicine.
  10. Ethics and security for responsible innovation in robotics.

“Obviously, we think all of them are important,” said coauthor Bradley Nelson, a professor of robotics and intelligent systems at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), when asked about which advances could be most impactful. “In the long run, the biggest long-term impacts on society seem to come from breakthroughs in materials with new, better properties than what previously existed.”

What can we expect in 2018?

“We will see more progress in smart materials and their innovative use in robotics,” Yang told Robotics Business Review. “We will also see major advances in medical robotics, from minimally invasive surgery, targeted therapy, and hospital optimization, to emergency response, prosthetics, and home assistance.”

The authors also predicted that “robotics and AI can and will help us manage increasing socioeconomic complexity, from megacities to industrial production. Yet, the risk remains that we may misuse or underuse robotics and AI.”

The paper does not specifically address the recent controversy surrounding lethal autonomous weapons, including the international Stop Killer Robots campaign.

“In the article, we identified five ethical challenges at this level of analysis, because they need to be solved systematically, in terms of design of robots in general,” said co-author Luciano Floridi, director of the Digital Ethics Lab at the University of Oxford and chair of the Data Ethics Group at The Alan Turing Institute in London. “We believe that autonomous weapons systems pose serious ethical problems concerning delegation, de-responsibilization, and misuse, three of the challenges that we identified in the article.”

“In the article, we stress that AI, and robotics implementing AI, ‘should be designed and used to treat every human being always as an end and never only as a means,'” said co-author Mariarosaria Taddeo, deputy director of Oxford’s Digital Ethics Lab and Turing Fellow at The Alan Turing Institute. “This is a key principle. Disregard it, and the adoption and acceptability of robotics will be more difficult.”

In the closing section of the robotics challenges paper, the authors pointed out Antarctic explorer Robert F. Scott’s recognition of the significance of leaf fossils discovered on the frozen continent. They called for the same degree of awareness in robotics research

“The ability to recognize discoveries as we progress is as important as conquering these academic missions,” they wrote.