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Luis Moreno, robotics expert and professor at the Carlos III University in Madrid, works on developing exoskeletons for restoration, manipulating artificial hands to give them a human sensitivity, and on differentautonomous systems so as robots can calculate routes, avoid walls and obstacles and even find paths on Mars.
What's the challenge of robotics?
There are quite a few challenges. The old mobile robotics, vehicles with sensors that move with a certain understanding of the environment and avoid obstacles, is going to be applied in two fields: the vehicles field (Google) and space exploration, which is a less visible field.
Another field is the service robot, or the so-called social robots. They don't have a great ability to handle things, but they have many qualities for social relationships. They're able to synthesize speech and understand part of what is being said, with obvious limitations. This is reaching hospitals for Alzheimer patients and hotels, and a lot of work is being put into the exoskeleton, or humanoid, part.
What do you think about Google purchasing dozens of robotics companies over the last few years?
Google's purchase sounds amazing because it's Google, but all the technology that's currently on the market, such as the automatic parking of cars, is what robotics laboratories were doing in the '80s.Google's case is highly publicized, but to give you an example, years ago we had a car in Madrid that came down from the mountain to the city on its own. The technology was already mature and Google hasn't done any marvelous research, although what's being done isn't at all bad as it's not easy to put this technology on the market.
What problems is robotics facing?
Robotics is a bank of integration for any technology. It's facing energy problems and actuator problems.We can't develop robots that are more sophisticated or that have more human skills because the actuators we have are still engines, mainly electric.
Another challenge is understanding situations. Making a robot understand. Another huge problem we are facing is how to teach them. Programming a robot's activity is very complicated, and nowadays you pretty much need an engineer to be with it continuously, and every laboratory around the world is trying to teach robots. Learning things is a challenge, although we mustn't forget about the sensory part.
At present, we aren't able to develop anything equivalent to a human hand in terms of ability, sensitivity and strength. Sensors have their limitations, for example, robots can only see between 7 and 8 meters of volumetric image.
Are robots going to replace people in day-to-day jobs?
No. The most robotic countries are the richest countries and those that have the highest levels of employment. Japan, Korea and the United States, for example, don't use robots to replace people and they aren't interested in doing so. Robots are expensive, very expensive, and they are used to improve product quality. The car industry didn't introduce robots to replace people, possibly because robots are much more expensive. However, robots can weld with a very high precision. They're not going to replace people. The most automated countries tend to produce products with a higher quality, they sell more products around the world, and therefore have more wealth and employment. That's the reality.
So robots aren't a threat?
I don’t think so. Countries are going to demand more robots. This is the case, for example, of Japan with social robots. They don't replace anyone, they accompany patients, they check their health, they remind them to take their medication, they chat to each other. They don't replace anyone because no one else is doing that. Exoskeletons aren't going to fire anyone. The person who gives them the job will be in charge.The feeling of threat isn't real right now.
What country will lead robotization over the next few years?
China will become robotic but not to fire people. It will do so because many of its products aren't of a very high quality. China will become more clearly robotic over the next twenty years. It has an industry that needs to produce higher quality. It can't continue to just sell cheap products. It will have to become robotic,since human hands can't assemble products with a high quality.
And how do you see Europe?
Germany is very robotic, and France, Italy and Spain have good levels, especially in certain industries such as cars and electronics. They're not doing badly at all.
Latin America still doesn't have a huge manufacturing industry, which is where robotics come in. The level is lower due to the type of industry and they don't have a high need.
What do you think about the controversy of the so-called "killer robots"?
Every technology that's developed around the world has a double use. Drones don't shoot by themselves.Behind each robot is a person that's programming its movements and actions. Vaccinations can be used to kill or cure. Everything, not just robots, can be used in one way or another, for good or for bad.
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By BBVA Innovation Center