Wow, that’s a big question. I think a good place to start is how robotics is benefiting society now. There are already perhaps a million robots in factories and warehouses – so if you think that making cars and washing machines, or getting your stuff from the Amazon warehouse ready to send you, are a good thing then those robots are benefiting society. Other robots help us by going to places that humans can’t go – like deep under the ocean to repair oil wells, or to do planetary exploration like the amazing Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some robots help people much more directly like the surgical robot called Da Vinci – some operations in this country are now routinely carried out by a robot controlled by a surgeon.
However, some things that we would like robots to be able to do are still too difficult. A good example is search and rescue. Imagine a collapsed building in an earthquake (like the one a few weeks ago in New Zealand). As you know it’s incredibly dangerous for the rescue workers to try and find survivors. It would be really great if the rescue workers could first send a swarm of small and light robots to search all of the spaces in the collapsed building for survivors, give first aid to the survivors directly, allow the rescue workers to see and talk to them and, at the same time, provide the rescue workers with a 3D map of the collapsed building and where the survivors are so that they can then carefully dig them out. I think that search and rescue robots like these would be an incredible benefit to society.
Search and rescue is just one example of how I think robots will benefit society in the near future. There are many others, for instance robots to sort and recycle waste (like real life WALL-E robots) or robots to clean up pollution such as oil spills. A whole other class of robots are those that will work alongside people as workmates, for instance helping to care for elderly or disabled people. However, care robots are not only technically difficult to design and build – so that they are completely safe and reliable – but they also raise ethical questions. How would you feel, for instance, if you had a disabled relative who was looked after by someone with a robot helper? So, for some applications of robots in the near future, we will need to think about ethical questions before we decide if the robots will really benefit our society.