Bruno Bonnell: “We will have a hard time doing without the robots tomorrow”

Summary

French entrepreneur and robotics expert Bruno Bonnell shares his views on the robots of tomorrow, and especially on our interactions with them. The key word here is cooperation.

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Bruno Bonnell is a French entrepreneur. A serial entrepreneur, you might say. He is the co-founder & ex-president of Infogrames (a video games producer and distributor) and ex-president of Atari (a subsidiary of Infogrames). He is now at the head of Robopolis (a personal robotics company), while being the president of Syrobo (the French robotics syndicate) and AwaBot (a robotics start-up he founded in 2010). Bruno Bonnell is also a member of Danone’s Board.

Personal robotics and its increasing appearance in our everyday lives is a topic that is gaining more and more public attention. French authorities are working on their understanding of the stakes, in order to help the industry develop. In April 2012, a forecast study commissioned by PIPAME (an interdepartmental unit in charge of economic forecasting & the anticipation of economic change) was thus published on the « future industrial development of personal robotics and service robotics in France ».

The study focused a great deal on service robotics in the medical field, i.e. on the development of machines that are designed for either professional environments (such as hospitals) or personal environments (where they play the role of a companion).

To get a clearer picture of the stakes concerning the future of service robotics, we asked Bruno Bonnell a few questions. While answering them, he also gave us his views on how mankind will live with robots, in a future that is very close at hand.

 

In the 2012 study commissioned by the Ministry of Economy, there is a distinction between service/personal robotics and professional robotics. Can you tell us more about this distinction?

 

To me, the distinction is comparable to the word “micro-computers”, which we used when these new machines arrived to differentiate them from the very large computers we had had thus far. Nowadays, no one uses the word “micro-computer” any more. So we use the word “service robotics” to distinguish these new robots from the heavy, programmable automatons we created in the 1970s – and that we have of course improved over the years, but they are becoming collection pieces compared to service robots. We are in the midst of a transition to a time where we will see only one kind of robotics. Ten years from now, we will no longer be making any difference. In fact, every robot has a mission to serve; they are all service robots. We hear more and more about the “cobots” (collaborative robots): the idea that we should collaborate with robots instead of competing against them is becoming established.

 

So we are not going to be replaced by robots?

 

No. The path to the future is not to oppose men and robots, but to understand that in the augmented world we are going to live in – a world that will be augmented in terms of stress, speed, amount of data, etc. –, we will have a hard time doing without robots tomorrow, just as we cannot do without our mobile phones today.

Real Humans (a Swedish TV show that just started airing in France and displays a society where lifelike robots share the lives of human beings – Ed.) is a good example of the persistence of this replacement fantasy. The word “robot” first appeared in 1920, in a science-fiction play by Karel Čapek, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), where he described artificial men who replaced the workers in factories. We have perpetuated this idea of robots replacing men, and we imagine them becoming quasi-human, in the long run. But in fact, they are not human at all. That is what the “uncanny valley” theory is about (this theory says that the more a robot looks like a human being, the more it is likely to provoke feelings of disgust. It was proposed in the 1970s by Japanese robotics engineer Masashito Mori – Ed.): because we are not gods, we cannot make human beings, so we try to go as far as we can, but these robots are zombie-like and morbid, and they provoke reactions of rejection. I don’t believe in humanoids; it is as ridiculous as wanting to build planes with flapping wings. Robotics does not mimic nature. If we create anthropomorphic machines, we are going to want to analyse them with anthropological tools, and that is not the point.

 

In the field of assistance to people who are not autonomous, don’t you feel that  robots should look like humans if they are to be accepted by patients?

 

There are different ways to see it, and some people believe that anthropomorphism is important to build trust. But I think it is far from being established. There have been surveys that demonstrated that in Star Wars, people preferred R2D2, the talking can, to C3P0, the humanoid robot, by more than 70%!

Robots have to be useful, provide comfort and optimise the running of our daily lives. They should not look like human beings if they do things that humans do not do, because then expectations are created, which are bound to be disappointed.

Robots are indeed better than us at deducing things. But it is not comparable to thought. They do arouse emotions, though. 100% of the people who buy a Roomba (the robot vacuum-cleaner – ed.) give it a name and develop feelings towards it. There is an important difference with a machine: with a robot, one can develop an intimate relationship. At AwaBot, we have a range called EMOX: EMO stands for “emotion”, and X for “communication”. The programming of the robot itself induces this emotion, because it is made to communicate.

 

How will robots help caregivers in their jobs?

 

People tend to think in a rather caricatured way in that respect, assuming that all patients are either bedridden, handicapped or heavily crippled. Fortunately, human beings will keep on handling these situations, because they require humanity. But we can imagine that tools and intelligent machines will be there to assist them in difficult tasks, such as lifting or bathing patients. Robotics is not going to replace the caregivers, but cooperate with them, rather. Men will partner up with intelligent machines to provide more comfort and be more efficient. Elderly and crippled people will not be handled by robots alone. In fact, robots will find their true meaning when they enable caregivers to express their humanity.

 

You are a member of Danone’s Board. What does your expertise in robotics contribute to the Board?

 

Danone has engineers and technicians who are experts in manufacturing robotics, so they do not need me in that respect! I want to contribute reflections on consumption uses, or on the uses of treatment in the field of medical food.

I wish to share my experiences so that the people who work in research can benefit from ideas that come from outside, and that I hope can help them grow and progress in their activity.

Photo © Shutterstock / Julien Tromeur