“Next generation robotics” is one of 10 emerging technologies of 2015 highlighted by the World Economic Forum’s Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies.

For decades we have pictured a future in which robots take over everyday tasks, but until now their use has largely remained limited to large-scale manufacturing and service settings. However, the next generation of robotics is finally poised to realize these longstanding visions, transforming daily life on a scale potentially comparable to the internet.

We spoke to Paolo Dario, Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Director of the BioRobotics Institute of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, Italy, about what is driving the current revolution in robotics and where it may lead. This is an edited transcript of the interview.

Q: What can robots do today?

Among the robots you may have seen in the media recently are the Baxter, made by Rethink Robotics in the United States, and the KUKA LBR iiwa, made by KUKA Labs in Germany and the first robot to be certified to work closely with humans without the need for safety cages. That’s a major step forward compared with a few years ago, and opens the way for applications both inside and outside industrial settings.

Part of the progress these examples embody is in making robots easier to programme, and enabling them to learn by doing. This makes it possible for robots to be used for more artisan, small-scale production, rather than being practical only for use in large production runs through rigid and laborious pre-programming.

Robots can already carry out some services, too. You see them in space, underwater and at home, vacuuming floors or cleaning swimming pools.

Q: What is driving progress in robotics?

We can identify five things:

1. There’s a quiet and invisible revolution in what’s happening inside robots, in their ability to perceive, understand and respond to what’s going on around them, which depends not only on processing power but on sensors. In the past, sensors were difficult to develop: large, unreliable and power-hungry. They’ve now become very low cost – often, just a few cents – high performance, reliable and efficient. Sensors are everywhere nowadays, from your smartphone to your dishwasher. In robots, the ways in which this manifests include the ability to sense and manage virtually any interaction with the external world, and an increasing ability to keep their balance – something we tend to take for granted as humans because it’s not a sense we’re as conscious of as taste, touch, sight, smell or hearing, but which is nonetheless extremely important for functioning in the real world.

2. Robot bodies are being transformed. While the likes of the KUKA iiwa exemplify the state of the art in mechatronic design, these are expensive machines – the more joints you want to have, the more motors you need to drive the different individual parts. So there is now a growing trend to look at how robots can emulate living beings: there are no bearings in nature, but rather locally deformable structures, such as an insect’s leg or wing structure. Taking inspiration from the morphology and organizational principles of living things is opening up a huge variety of novel designs and materials for next-generation robots, including soft and flexible exteriors that can morph into different shapes for different tasks.

3. Robots are becoming more integrated with the web, which is shifting the focus of research from autonomy to connectivity. Think of how, a few years ago, if you wanted to navigate to a certain point, you’d need to know how to read a map and relate it to your surroundings – whereas now you can simply tell your smartphone where you want to go and follow its instructions. Something analogous is happening with robots. There’s less need for them to understand their environment, and more scope for them to access the information and instructions they need from the cloud. And once you have robots permanently connected, you can design them for almost any application imaginable.

4. Significant progress has been made in machine learning and artificial intelligence, in particular with the introduction of new powerful methods such as deep learning, enabling new levels of interaction with humans and the environment.

5. Substantial funds are now available for research. For example, the European Union has recently launched SPARC, the largest civilian investment in the world on robotics research and innovation, with a total funding of almost 3 billion euros. Countries like Japan, a historical leader in industrial robotics and robotics research, South Korea and recently China have ongoing and forthcoming massive investment programmes in the field. Google is putting serious resources into robotics, and there are significant prizes – such as the DARPA Robotics Challenge, RoboCup, RoCKIn, the Robots for Good and the Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge – which will be a significant spur to development.

Q: What can we expect to see robots used for in the years to come?

Robots will have a rapidly increasing impact on everyday life, from home and family settings to applications in healthcare, such as surgery and rehabilitation; in space, the military, agriculture and many other areas.

One aspect of next-generation robotics that I find particularly exciting is its potential to stimulate and incorporate contributions from all kinds of disciplines. There are relevant developments in a wide range of scientific and technological fields, of course, from nanotech to 3D printing. But also researchers from the humanities and social sciences have fascinating things to say – the next generation of robotics poses questions for, and can learn from, fields including philosophy, psychology, anthropology, ethics, economics and even history. It is a very big opportunity for humankind; the challenge is to use it wisely.

Q: What are the risks from next generation robotics?

Science fiction has long had an ambivalent view of autonomous robots: there are depictions of paradise, with robots liberating all of humanity from mundane chores, alongside hellish speculations about invasions of privacy and autonomy from armies of networked robots under the control of a central computer. Fears like those depicted in the movie I, Robot will start to become more salient.

There are, however, risks that we can more easily foresee and prepare for today – and those are economic risks, related to widening inequality. Just as the recent transformation of everyday life through connectivity has left people on the wrong side of the digital divide, we can expect to see a robot divide as the benefits of next-generation robotics are initially unequally shared.

Although researchers and practitioners in robotics and AI know that it is probably way too early to worry about intelligent machines conquering the world, the transformative economic and societal potential of ongoing and near-future developments in the field is huge and largely untapped. These developments will trigger an unprecedented leap in productivity. In past waves of technological change, new and better jobs have arisen as machines took over functions previously performed by humans. And that may happen again, but due to the speed and scale of the change, some fear it will not – that this time there won’t be many new roles for humans to be displaced into. This may not be an entirely negative scenario, though, since we could seriously consider and investigate how a society in which humans would be widely served by AI and robotics could be sustainable and manageable.

We will need a creative multidisciplinary entrepreneurial attitude to cope with the new challenges, maximizing benefits and reducing risks. So far, the evidence suggests it will be worth the effort.

Author: Paolo Dario, Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Director of the BioRobotics Institute of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, Italy

Image: The Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (SSOD), in the grasp of the Kibo laboratory robotic arm, is photographed by an Expedition 38 crew member on the International Space Station. REUTERS/NASA