Verena Fulde


Robo Sapiens – how human can robots become?

A robot

Robots work on assembly lines, repeating the same task with the same precision for hours, days and even weeks on end. And they don't even complain. They are patient, fast and free of prejudices. And they never call in sick – at most, they might break down and can then simply be repaired or replaced.

That's really nothing new. Yet robots are also being used for a variety of activities today that are anything but routine: they staff the reception desk at hotels and help you check in. They answer the questions of the faithful at a monastery (no joke: this actually happens at the Longquan Buddhist Temple). They patiently care for dementia suffers. They perform precise surgery. And some of them even hunt shoplifters in department stores. See some examples in our graphic.

Can a thing made of metal and wires and powered by external energy sources achieve self-awareness? Or even develop feelings? This isn't as absurd as it might seem – an opinion shared by the EU, which is funding research in developing robots with social skills as part of its "Horizon 2020" initiative.

Does this mean we've created a new species in robots? One that will require its own genus? Is the "Robo Sapiens" the next step in our evolution? Might robots even be the better people? And if that's the case, don't we need rules and laws for them, too?

Was science fiction author Isaac Asimov right when he formulated his "Three Laws of Robotics", and with this also the basic rights - relationship between man and machine way back in 1942?

On the flip side, there are many who urge caution in future developments. One prominent example is the philosopher Nick Bostrom. His book, "Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies", paints a picture of artificial intelligence and its potential urge to take power so vividly that it prompted an open letter signed by thousands of experts. In the letter, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, Elon Musk and many others warn of the potential consequences of artificial intelligence. Musk tweeted: "Hope we're not just the biological boot loaders for digital superintelligence. Unfortunately, that is increasingly probable".

Hope we're not just the biological boot loader for digital superintelligence. Unfortunately, that is increasingly probable

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) 3. August 2014

Consequently, he joined LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, German tech investor Peter Thiel and others in allocating a billion dollars to researching artificial intelligence and founded OpenAI, a non-profit organization dedicated to researching how artificial intelligence can be used to the benefit of mankind.

Or you could follow the arguments of experts like the philosopher Hubert L. Dreyfus and professor of computer science David Gelernter – both believe that the human mind is so complex that it will be difficult to duplicate – and believe that artificial intelligence and humanoid robots are far-fetched or something that will only be achieved far in the future. When we look at today's robots, it's easy to trust in this argument. And we're all to willing to view mankind as the pinnacle of creation.

Yet perhaps the current generation of robots is simply so awkward because it is only taking its first steps – like children.


On the other hand, there are also very impressive examples out there. Take a look at Sophia, for example, a robotic female that can already simulate human behavior, facial expressions and language astonishingly perfectly. See some examples in our special.

Even experts think it possible that we might not be able to tell robots and humans apart soon and that we will befriend them because they give us the attention we no longer receive from real people.

Others, such as the American Ray Kurzweil, even long for the point where robots and humans converge. His concept of singularity posits that this convergence could even result in biological immortality. Not a very attractive proposition, in my opinion.

Right now it's still too early to tell who is right or what direction developments will take. But we should be prepared to deal with them, understand these developments and discuss the advantages and disadvantages. That's the objective of our initiative on digital responsibility. Join the debate under #digitalduty on Twitter…

And please have a look at our "Robo Sapiens" Special.