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IN the Scot­land of the fu­ture we will be looked af­ter in our old age by ro­bot as­sis­tants, give up on car own­er­ship, live sin­gle lives in which our chat­bots and home as­sis­tants are our most con­stant com­pan­ions, and strug­gle to re­mem­ber what pri­vacy once felt like. That is the vi­sion that was re­vealed when we talked to some of the world’s top scientists and fu­tur­ol­o­gists who will be speak­ing at the Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Sci­ence Fes­ti­val next month.



In a seem­ingly or­di­nary cul-de-sac in a sub­ur­ban area of Hat­field, Pro­fes­sor Ker­stin Daut­en­hahn has cre­ated what she calls a ro­bot house. In­side, this smart home is dot­ted with sen­sors and pop­u­lated by a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ro­bots to which the sen­sors feed in­for­ma­tion about the move­ments of peo­ple in the house. Her aim, ul­ti­mately, is to de­velop the kind of ro­bot com­pan­ion which could look af­ter a per­son in old age, ill­ness, or dis­abil­ity. With an age­ing pop­u­la­tion and in­creas­ing strain on our health and care sys­tem, she sees it as part of a so­lu­tion to pro­vid­ing care and help­ing peo­ple to stay in­de­pen­dent at home.

In five to ten years’ time, she says, we might start to see such ro­bot car­ers in peo­ple’s homes, help­ing to fetch things, re­mind­ing peo­ple to eat or take their med­i­ca­tion, ob­serv­ing if there is some health-re­lated cause for alarm. Daut­en­hahn, who is talk­ing at an event at the fes­ti­val ti­tled Your Ro­bot Room­mate, is quick to em­pha­sise that ro­bot com­pan­ions are not de­signed to re­place hu­mans. “A ro­bot,” she says, “can­not re­place hu­man con­tact, as far as I’m con­cerned.”

Cur­rently, she ob­serves, an el­derly per­son who needs some as­sis­tance might have a carer com­ing in for only ten min­utes twice a day. Yet, that el­derly per­son may need to be watched for far more of that time. “What you re­ally want is a sys­tem that can 24/7 watch over peo­ple and learn about their be­hav­iours, and might be able to track, for in­stance, if they seem to be eat­ing less, and iden­tify a med­i­cal prob­lem ear­lier.” Daut­en­hahn en­vi­sions that this could free up hu­man car­ers so that in the twenty min­utes they are there, they are pro­vid­ing mean­ing­ful hu­man con­tact.

“In an ideal world,” she says, “you’d have a hu­man com­ing to an older per­son’s house for six hours a day, sit­ting and chat­ting with them, but that’s un­for­tu­nately not how re­al­ity is. I would rather have a hu­man be­ing come in once a day for twenty min­utes and just talk to the per­son, and a ro­bot deal with all of the other is­sues.” How­ever, Daut­en­hahn does con­fess that one of her fears is that care providers could de­cide at some point they want to stop us­ing hu­mans all to­gether and get only ro­bots to do the work.

Mean­while such ro­bots and smart homes would come with a myr­iad of eth­i­cal is­sues, par­tic­u­larly around pri­vacy and se­cu­rity, since these are sys­tems that would es­sen­tially be ob­serv­ing al­most ev­ery­thing a per­son does. How­ever, she is keen to re­as­sure those with wilder wor­ries about ro­bots get­ting out of con­trol, or re­plac­ing peo­ple and mak­ing them re­dun­dant. “Be­cause of films like Ter­mi­na­tor and AI, peo­ple of­ten see ro­bots as hav­ing some de­sire or in­ten­tion to kill peo­ple and to take over the world. This re­search is re­ally about pro­vid­ing tools to help peo­ple, to as­sist them.”



We are start­ing to learn a lot about the com­ing of driver­less car, but in the fu­ture the big­gest change in trans­porta­tion is go­ing to be that fewer of us will be own­ing cars. This doesn’t mean that we will no longer be trav­el­ling in them, but that smart­phone con­nec­tiv­ity will fuel the growth of so­phis­ti­cated use of car clubs, cab ser­vices like Uber and car-pool­ing sys­tems. Al­ready car own­er­ship is stag­nat­ing and fewer younger peo­ple, from 17 to 20, are learn­ing to drive. Ac­cord­ing to Dr Caitlin Cot­trill of the Univer­sity of Aberdeen, who will be talk­ing at a sci­ence fes­ti­val event on In­tel­li­gent Trans­port, we are chang­ing from a sys­tem “fo­cused on ve­hi­cle own­er­ship” to one that re­volves around “mo­bil­ity as a ser­vice”.

“Peo­ple are be­com­ing less both­ered about own­ing the car, par­tic­u­larly given the fi­nan­cial bur­dens and main­te­nance re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that come with it.” In the fu­ture, she says, we are likely to be us­ing so­cial me­dia to “fa­cil­i­tate col­lab­o­ra­tive rides and next gen­er­a­tion car­pool­ing”. Peo­ple, in­creas­ingly, will be think­ing: “I need to get from ac­tiv­ity to ac­tiv­ity, but I don’t need to own a car.”

Driver­less cars have a place in this con­nected travel fu­ture. But, ob­serves Cot­trill, there are many is­sues still to be re­solved be­fore driver­less cars hit our roads. “The tech­nol­ogy is cer­tainly mov­ing in leaps and bounds, but the ques­tion is are our poli­cies and reg­u­la­tions keep­ing up with it. Be­cause when you have au­ton­o­mous vehicles on the roads, par­tic­u­larly if they’re in mixed traf­fic, then you’ve got ques­tions – if there is a crash, who’s li­able for it? Is it the per­son who pro­grammed the ve­hi­cle?”

Also part of this fu­ture will be our at­tempts to re­duce emis­sions and en­ergy con­sump­tion, so ex­pect in­creased use of elec­tric cars and a growth in the use of that gi­ant of old­school tech­nol­ogy, the bike.



Tim Bern­ers-Lee, the man who in­vented the web, re­cently pub­lished a let­ter say­ing that one of his big con­cerns about the in­ter­net is that “we’ve lost con­trol of our per­sonal data”. This cri­sis in data pri­vacy is a sub­ject Ken McBain, of global tech­nol­ogy com­pany Vi­avi So­lu­tions, will be tack­ling when he presents a talk at the fes­ti­val ti­tled Your Phe­nom­e­nal Phone And What It Says About Your Pri­vacy. Our phones are con­stantly giv­ing away data about our pri­vate lives. “If

some­one said to

peo­ple 30 years ago that al­most ev­ery­one would be walk­ing around with a de­vice that meant a com­pany and gov­ern­ment could lo­cate you to within 100 me­tres, peo­ple back then would think it was a gov­ern­ment man­date in a po­lice state,” says McBain.

Pri­vacy is some­thing, says McBain, we have sur­ren­dered “be­cause it’s con­ve­nient to be con­tactable and have ac­cess to apps and the in­ter­net wher­ever we go”. We do it be­cause, he says, most of us re­ally want ev­ery­thing to be easy for us. “To have a con­ve­nient map on our phone we turn on lo­ca­tion ser­vices that mean our lo­ca­tion is known to Google or Apple. We don’t want to pay for a per­sonal email ac­count so we ac­cept the deal that our emails are scanned and data about us taken from them. We want friends to see the things we have done so we give Face­book an un­be­liev­able view into our pri­vate lives.”

With the de­vel­op­ment of driver­less cars and ever smarter homes, it is likely that more and more of our lives will be stored some­where as data. In the fu­ture, it’s pos­si­ble that the only place we will be able to find pri­vacy is off the grid. Nev­er­the­less, con­cerns over pri­vacy seem to be de­ter­ring few of us. As McBain ob­serves: “The past 20 years has shown our de­sire for tan­gi­ble ser­vices, games and in­for­ma­tion for free, plus our de­sire for con­ve­nience wins out over con­cerns we might have about in­tan­gi­ble is­sues like pri­vacy. I don’t see our hu­man de­sire for easy stuff for free chang­ing much soon.”



As­sum­ing that we fol­low cur­rent trends, in the fu­ture more and more of us are likely to be sin­gle, and fewer of us will have chil­dren. Dr Qazi Ra­man of King’s Col­lege, Lon­don, who will be talk­ing at the event, The Con­scious Un­cou­pling, ob­serves that it’s likely that by the time the cur­rent twen­tysome­things are in their for­ties, more of them than ever be­fore will never have been mar­ried.

Mean­while, on­line dat­ing is only likely to grow, and de­velop new bells and whis­tles, so that by 2040, ac­cord­ing to a re­port com­mis­sioned by eHar­mony, peo­ple will be mak­ing use of full sen­sory vir­tual re­al­ity and be­hav­iour-based match­ing to en­hance the ex­pe­ri­ence. Rah­man, ob­serves that al­ready on­line dat­ing has “democra­tised ro­mance and love,” adding: “Peo­ple who have rel­a­tively rare sex­ual pref­er­ences, or those who live ru­rally, sud­denly can find dates.”



The smart home has al­ready ar­rived, but cur­rent home as­sis­tants are only able to per­form a lim­ited range of tasks, such as con­trol ap­pli­ances or put a note in a di­ary. Soon, how­ever, they will be able to do much more. Ac­cord­ing to On­drej Dusek of He­riot-Watt Univer­sity, a speaker at the event, Your Ro­bot Room­mate, the fu­ture lies in creat­ing sys­tems that can re­spond to al­most any­thing we ask. As Dusek puts it: “What many peo­ple are work­ing on now is en­abling these as­sis­tants to talk to you about any topic in the same way as you would talk to a per­son.” His own group at He­riot-Watt is cur­rently de­vel­op­ing a so­cial chat ro­bot.

For Dusek the fu­ture of the in­tel­li­gent home as­sis­tant lies in two things – “more nat­u­ral, per­son­alised, so­cial di­a­logue and more real-world skills, like shop­ping and au­to­ma­tion” as well as the much big­ger goal of “en­dow­ing these machines with the abil­ity to learn new skills from hu­mans, with­out the need for pro­gram­ming those skills”.



Games in the fu­ture won’t just be for fun and en­ter­tain­ment – they will also help us cre­ate good health rou­tines, un­der­stand our bod­ies and man­age our pain. Pro­fes­sor Pam Kato of the Se­ri­ous Games In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of Coven­try is a cre­ator of such games, one of her first be­ing Re-Mis­sion, in which play­ers en­ter the hu­man body as mi­cro­scopic ro­bots to fight can­cer at the cel­lu­lar level. “With my game for peo­ple liv­ing with can­cer it had an im­pact on peo­ple tak­ing more of their chemo­ther­apy which is re­lated to liv­ing longer. Games can be pretty powerful tools.”

One of the big po­ten­tial ar­eas in which gam­ing might be used in health, says Kato who is pre­sent­ing an event at the fes­ti­val called Games: Just What The Doc­tor Or­dered, is through VR. Given that even or­di­nary games have al­ready been proven to pro­vide dis­trac- tion from pain, and thereby re­duce it, VR with its im­mer­sive qual­ity has still greater po­ten­tial. Per­haps, Kato the­o­rises, in the hos­pi­tals of the fu­ture, peo­ple may be dis­tracted from their im­me­di­ate en­vi­ron­ments by a VR head­set, and thrown into a more pleas­ant vir­tual en­vi­ron­ment which causes them less stress, and thereby en­ables them to get bet­ter faster. The Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Sci­ence Fes­ti­val is from April 1-16

Games in the fu­ture won’t just be for fun and en­ter­tain­ment – they will also help us cre­ate good health rou­tines, un­der­stand our bod­ies and man­age our pain

The fu­ture will in­volve more so­cially in­ter­ac­tive do­mes­tic ro­bots, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts

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