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Dr Tjeerd Andringa: ‘More discussion needed on the desired role of robots’

16 February 2011

Plenty of research is being done into how robots can provide support to us. Developing cognitive systems is relevant to everyone, although few are aware of this, according to Tjeerd Andringa, associate professor of Auditory Cognition at the University of Groningen. ‘The process can go either way: we control technology or technology controls us. We have to choose whether the robots of the future are butlers or wardens.’

photograph Tjeerd Andringa
Tjeerd Andringa

Andringa points to the increasingly ageing population and impending ‘underpopulation’ when emphasizing the importance of technology. ‘If we do not become more independent at a later age than at present, we will require much more care in future. So much more care in fact that the complete Dutch workforce would have to work in the care sector. This is of course out of the question. So we need to do something that will mean that people can live independently for longer than now is the case. Technology could play an important role, but the question is what exactly technology should deliver.’

No adjusting to technology

Scientists need to know precisely what is expected of them, according to Andringa. What do people need and desire as technological support? ‘We’re hardly able to imagine travelling without a mobile phone anymore. This is an example of a technological development that has made a real contribution to our lives. Something along those lines needs to be developed regarding care for the elderly. This could perhaps be a robot servant – a robot that could compensate for any physical and mental shortcomings in a trustworthy and ethical manner. It should be an aid that is so foolproof and trustworthy that many people will benefit from it. Nothing else is good enough, as far as I’m concerned. If we have to adapt ourselves to technology, we’ve done something fundamentally wrong.’

Andringa is well aware that this is not a view shared throughout the world. ‘In the US the structure is more hierarchical – you adjust yourself to what the authorities say. This also influences the way technology develops. In an authority-minded culture, technological applications will entail many restrictions for their users. And this means people become enslaved by technology.’

Thinking things over in time

It is much easier to develop cognitive systems that require the users to adapt themselves to them than to develops ones adapted to users. This is why it’s necessary to discuss matters in time, in Andringa’s opinion. ‘ We now have to consider which way we should be heading with cognitive systems. It’s a process that concerns all of us. Scientists need to know when they’re developing cognitive systems exactly what people want and what they don’t.’

Butler or warden

Andringa describes the difference between a butler and a warden. ‘It’s basically the difference between interest and fear. A butler expands people’s possibilities, while a warden makes them toe the line. Examples of the latter are a system that decides which data you are allowed access to on the internet, or a system insurers could use to check whether or not you’ve walked forty minutes daily, and whether or not you’re smoking,’ Andringa explains. ‘You can count on it that we’ll come up against such systems. And the developments will occur gradually and unobtrusively.’

Control our own future

Andringa: ‘We need to bring the discussion about the development of cognitive systems into the limelight. A lot is going to be happening in the years to come. You could view this with trepidation but it also it also offers many opportunities. I want people to think about their interests in the long term. This should certainly not be left to think-tanks manned by lobbyists from large, wealthy corporations. The vast majority of humanity has more or less the same basic interest: avoiding being abused. By conducting this discussion now, we – the vast majority – will be able to control our own future.’

Curriculum Vitae

Dr Tjeerd C. Andringa (1964, Leeuwarden) studied Physics at the University of Groningen. He is associate professor of Auditory Cognition at the Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Engineering Institute (ALICE) of the University of Groningen. He is also a senior researcher with INCA3 – a research institute involved in cognitive sensor technology.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.

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