Getting ready for robots all around

Policies need to ensure that the value of robots in public spaces are experienced by as many people as possible. This cannot be guaranteed.
Policies need to ensure that the value of robots in public spaces are experienced by as many people as possible. This cannot be guaranteed. (efired/Adobe)

Robots are fast becoming part of our everyday lives. Robots can be found cleaning, delivering food or packages, providing security,  assisting with healthcare, and providing entertainment at sports games. To date, policy makers and urban designers have said little about these developments.

Robots are machines that exhibit intelligence and autonomy. They can be left alone to complete specified tasks or a program of activities. High functioning robots can learn and adapt to their environments.

Both the present realities and future possibilities require frameworks for integrating robotic technologies within public spaces. Given that, there is an urgent need for governments to anticipate the ways that citizens will increasingly come to interact with robots in public.

Managing and knowing robot technologies

The novel and evolving nature of robotic technologies could lead us to think there is not yet a pressing need to manage how they function in public. But in recent research articles, we argue there is much that we should be doing now. We have identified key considerations for managing robots that map onto classic goals of public policy. These include defending people and property, promoting human flourishing, promoting efficiency, and promoting social equity.

Using what we already know about effective policy design and regulation, we can begin to create opportunities to enhance public spaces through the presence of robots, while reducing the risks of undesirable outcomes.

Robots as ‘Caring Subjects’ during COVID-19

Thanks to science fiction, when we think of robots, we often conjure images of entities that blur the line between human and machine. However, the use of robots in care settings during the COVID-19 crisis has challenged the idea that robots must necessarily be hyper smart and able to work autonomously. We found efficiency and tolerance for performing repetitive tasks to be more valuable traits in robots than social or learning abilities, or broad autonomy.

Robots performing cleaning, deliveries, and temperature checks during the pandemic have revealed how technologies are dependent on human interaction. We have also seen that robots can influence the feelings of those interacting with them. And they alter how people perceive specific environments. These apparent intangibles can often determine the value and efficacy of robot technologies.  

Robots, or rather human uses of robots, have helped to reconfigure the response to COVID-19 by adding new capacities to the caring sector. Robots in these environments contributed to care. They did not fully replace human labour.

COVID-19 has also shown us that some of the most valuable applications for robots emerge from necessity, with quick hacks or redesigns made in response to new demands. The idea of robots as ‘unfinished’ helps us understand how they can be used in different contexts, modified beyond their original design purposes – in much the same way that various apps have transformed our notions of what smart phones can do. The future success of robots in public settings and spaces will rely on policies that regulate the use of robots while also facilitating on-going, creative explorations of additional ways that can be deployed. 

Trust, planning, and change management

To see robotic technologies in public spaces as ‘manageable’ and ‘knowable’, policy designers will need to focus on trust, planning, and change management.

Trust is necessary for people to accept and use new technologies. In the case of robots, people must perceive them as safe, competent, and respectful in how they use any information they collect.

New regulations will need to be developed relating to the safety of the robots themselves and the competency of those seeking to operate them in public spaces. Operating licenses could be restrictive and place specific, so that robots would be licensed to perform certain tasks but not others within a particular locality. However, these licences also need to be adaptable to account for the changing needs and dynamics of a particular space.

Planning can reduce the possibility that the presence and actions of robots in public spaces will prove inconvenient or unpleasant to people. Policies need to ensure that technologies are utilised for the benefit of all who use a space. They must be designed to reduce negative effects of robots.

Change management is needed to ensure that the growing presence of robots in public spaces will lead to their broad acceptance and application throughout society. Policies need to ensure that the value of robots in public spaces are experienced by as many people as possible. This cannot be guaranteed. For example, food delivery robots raise the concern that people who can afford to use the service benefit from their presence, while those who cannot afford the service both fail to benefit from it and also have their ability to use public space degraded.

What can be done?

Looking ahead, governments will need to give more attention to the regulation of robots as they become more prevalent in public spaces.  With respect to safety, there is a need for clear rules for the safe operation of robots, just as long-established rules have enabled the safe expansion of automobile use in society. With respect to preserving our privacy, regulation will also be needed to ensure robots in public spaces respect human rights, such as privacy and freedom of association. But we need to avoid regulations that restrict technology, and that unnecessarily inhibit opportunities for robots to advance productivity.

Consideration must also be given to aesthetics. Policy will be needed to specify the allowable features and functions of robots in public spaces. Aesthetic consideration should also guide robot design. We also suggest that governments should monitor cutting-edge developments in emerging uses of robots and explore how the benefits of robotics can be shared across all groups in society, not just residents of affluent enclaves.  A role also exists for governments to facilitate opportunities for citizens and robotics engineers to talk discuss how innovations could ensure robots add high value to our lives.

How we use and interact with robots in the future could be both surprising and highly beneficial. But we should not leave the development and deployment of robots solely to engineers and computer scientists. Social scientists and urban designers have a major part to play. Our policy and regulatory approaches to robots need to encourage trust in every setting, incorporate planning that includes safety features, and account for both the positive effects and potential dangers of robots in public space. Done well, such policy design work could ensure we live with robots in highly productive ways.


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