Moderator Steve Doswell opened the ERW 2020 Panel discussion on the Central Event’s umbrella theme ‘Robotics for Humanity’ with a welcome to the discussion’s audience: “Members of the public and the robotics community, computer scientists, social scientists, specialists and generalists, wherever you are in the virtual world, and of course, to our six panellists.

“The theme Robotics for Humanity is the umbrella theme for the Central Event overall. We know that negative stereotypes very often get a lot of attention in the public media. But our panel and many listening and watching will know how robotics can help make the world a better place, how robots can help to address some of our big global challenges. Our task now is to share some of those positive stories.”

Inevitably, the first question was the most topical of all possible questions in 2020…

How has the robotics sector responded to the pandemic?

The first panellist invited to respond was Stefano Stramigioli, professor of advanced robotics at the University of Twente: “The European Commission acted quickly by devoting money to deploy infection robots. Robotics in healthcare can be useful for the pandemic but they also have great potential for the future.

John Erland Østergaard, Chief Technology Officer of Odense, Denmark-based Blue Ocean Robotics highlighted the impact of UVD robots, which use ultra-violet light for disinfection: “Disinfection robots are out now in many countries. They can disinfect rooms autonomously in 10-12 minutes. These have now migrated outside of healthcare and we now see them in airports, schools and fitness centres. It’s a fantastic thing for us to be able to contribute to fighting the pandemic in this way.

Ana Maria Stancu, CEO of Bucharest Robots and national coordinator for ERW in Romania agreed, although she also lamented a lack of readiness by public administrators: “If we had more robots in hospitals we could have saved more lives. UVD robots have been on the market for three years. Hospitals handling Covid cases today, could have responded more if they’d already had them. We took some robots to the hospital. We had them disinfecting and also taking meals to patients in bed.”

Technology giant ABB was this year’s ERW Central Event platinum sponsor. Jose-Manuel Collados manages the ABB’s Healthcare Solutions business. He outlined the company’s response to the pandemic: “Our first question and priority was, how we can support our existing customers with 400,000 robots working today in different industries. We saw an increase in production of personal protection equipment (PPE) using robots, 3D printing to produce masks, and many companies switching from industrial production to healthcare equipment. In just a few weeks, one New York company changed its production from electrical cabinets to respirators – that was only possible using flexible automation. Ana-Marias’s story also resonated. We approached hospitals to see how we could help but their first reaction was that they were extremely busy. Since then, we have been able to help with testing. The Singapore government carried out 100% of Covid testing using robots. It was done in record time, with 80,000 tests per day. We’re also seeing a rise in the use of robots for tests for bacilli and drugs in research. Interest of robotics in healthcare is increasing generally, and also as Stefano and John Erland have said, to support in areas where we don’t want people to access, so how to clean and disinfect and work in general in those environments.”

Senka Krivić is a Research Associate at King’s College London (KCL), specialising in robotics and AI working with humans. “At KCL we were looking at how to use robots in offices as many people had to go home and work remotely, and how to minimise contact between people by using service robots to perform some tasks. It’s good to see how hospitals have opened the door to robots.”

PAL Robotics was this year’s ERW Central Event bronze sponsor. Company CEO and Founder Francesco Ferrobegan by reflecting on the human tragedy of Covid-19, something all participants could acknowledge. On a positive note, PAL robots were involved in several projects supporting the response to the pandemic, such as feeding patients and taking temperatures, reducing the need for hospital staff contact with patients. arising from the pandemic response. “Another problem in this period is that a lot of people can’t go to visit their relatives in hospital. Robots can help – using simple telepresence we’ve enabled a lot of people to stay in touch with their families remotely, at least robots can help in this way. We are also working with disinfectant robots. In the end, robots are just tools to help us be more human at moments like this.”

“In the end, robots are just tools to help us be more human at moments like this.”

The discussion now turned to a broader question. Robotics are often seen as something in the future but they already serve us in the present. On behalf of members of the public who don’t already know, the panel was asked…

How have robotics already come into the service of humanity?

Ana began this round of responses: “I have two examples, one for the health industry and also UVD robots. We went into hospital and gave staff a robot to use for one month for free at the beginning of the pandemic when they were very panicked and didn’t know what to do. The greatest experience I had was with the head nurse who was 60 and not very ‘techy’. She loved the robot, learned to use the app and do the disinfection process herself. I didn’t expect that – it was a huge and positive experience. The other example is that when I took a Smart City course, my final paper was on a robot who was a public functionary, which is one of my dreams. One of the speakers on the course said that this was science fiction. And then we have people who meet robots and who speak to them as if they are normal people, and I have to explain that we are not there yet, it’s not like in The Terminator. This, said Ana, illustrated the two ends of the spectrum of public understanding of robots.”

For Stefano ethics were a key consideration: “Progress and technology combined with good ethics can only bring good for humanity. Ethics are an important factor because technology can be wrongly used. Practically everything we have now has been produced by robots. It started in the 1950s and 1960s in manufacturing, using robots to produce our cars. We’re now using service robots to help in certain tasks. I’d like to sketch out the boundary between our systems now and in the future. I always talk about two phases in robotics. The first will see a lot of deployment in the coming years – for example in supermarkets and healthcare and what I think is very important is the challenge for us in the future, maybe in 20-30 years, when we will reach a level of technology where humanoids can do anything for us, they can create our wealth, and do our work for us. All we will need is energy – we have enough energy coming from the only star in our solar system and if we start using it as it should be used we will also solve our environmental problems – and social balance. I think that that’s a very important thing to be considered. If all the robots are owned by a single enterprise, then all the wealth will not be properly shared. We really need to completely rethink the economic system for the future. If we use the technology well and politicians understand that it really will change and disrupt our society in 20-30 years from now, I think robotics can only bring peace and wealth to humanity – but you really need to use it well.”

John Erland agreed that the pandemic had opened society’s eyes to the usefulness of robots. “We have our own telepresence solution, so people can stay connected without physical contact. I agree with Stefano for long term, but in the short term there’s a lot more to it about the perception of robots, about workflows, about how to produce a robot with a good business case for the customer buying it. There’s been a huge change in the perception of how robots can be used in the past five years. In my view, though, there are very few robots deployed so far.”

Jose-Manuel recalled one of ABB’s propositions: “We would like to elevate the nature of work, whether that’s using 2000 tonnes of force or working in foundries in difficult conditions of heat and other hazards, and the same can be done in any other environment. We have people cleaning infectious rooms. We have a research collaboration in the largest hospital in Sweden where in the pathology lab they manage one million samples every year. But 10% of those samples cannot be handled in an automated way as the samples have different tube sizes, so highly trained lab technicians need to read bar codes. Elevating the nature of work means allowing them to do other, more meaningful tasks.

Asked if robots are just for the future or are they already active in society, Senka cited some everyday examples: “Everyone has seen robots who are cleaning or gardening. Another example I always mention is the company Ocado in the UK which has robots to prepare orders for online shopping. You order groceries and a robot (in the warehouse) quickly collects your order. Many people may have heard of Moley, a robotic kitchen. There are many other examples, including service robots in airports or museums offering information to customers and users. Other examples and potential uses may sound like science fiction, even for scientists. One example is a project I have been working on for my PhD to develop a robot to play with children at the kindergarten, and also pick up and clean toys. That may sound like sci fi but I think it will be possible in the near future.”

Francesco: “It’s a very good question. We are not magicians so we don’t know what will happen in the near future, but we believe humanoid robots – with wheels or legs – will play a very big role with humans in future. We have to focus attention on use cases. I strongly believe robotics will not create the same changes in our lives that cars did, for example. But roboticists have to be smart enough to use the same tools to give more and more services. One clear example is the stockbot robot helping with real-time inventory to great success in the 24-hour Decathlon store in Singapore. Innovation will also lead to having these kinds of robots working with us at home, because don’t forget that we are getting older and we won’t have enough people to assist us when we are old, so these kinds of assistive robots are very important to provide an answer to this problem.

The virtual microphone stayed with Francesco as he had already touched on the next question:

What role can robotics play in the care of the elderly?

“We had a project with a company in the Netherlands to demonstrate that robots can assist elderly people to stay in their own homes for 2-3 more years before needing to enter a hospital or care home, “said Francesco. “We are working with hospitals in Paris and Barcelona to develop use cases. That’s something for the near future.”

Senka’s research has looked specifically at the use of robots in uncertain real-world environments and working with humans. Her perspective was clear and succinct: “We have to bring robots into the real world, without adjusting the real world. Robots have to adapt to people. Different people also like different approaches from robot, so robots need some kind of emotional intelligence, too, not just technical adaptiveness. Elderly people may like to have help with feeding, changing clothes, cleaning, and let’s say some kind of interest or social engagement, maybe to chat with the robot. What’s also important to mention is tackling the problems of privacy, fear of surveillance, and the uncertainty of a world with robots.”

Responding to the question of robots in the care for elderly people, John Erland mentioned patient transfer and rehabilitation (PTR) in which robots can help with a range of physical tasks for which elderly infirm people may not or may no longer be capable. “PTR robots address the demographic change we’re talking about – helping people when they are immobile to get out of a chair or go to the toilet, for example, and also for rehabilitation. In future it will sense even more what a patient can do, not just solving a task for the patient but also increasing what patient can do. We are deploying this now in nursing homes and hospitals in Denmark and elsewhere. It makes it more efficient for staff in nursing homes. It sometimes takes 3-4 staff members to assist a patient but now with robots just one person can do it. One physiotherapist can train with more people with robots working with patients. This increases human ability and makes the workplace much better and efficient for staff members.”

Jose-Manuel outlined the scale of the challenge: “Within the EU we assume that over 30% of the population will be over 65 by the end of the century, and close to 15% will be over 85 where today we are at 6%. This share will be taken from people who are working today. It raises many concerns, such as how we’re going to keep industry and society going. We will need automation for sure. It’s not only a European problem but one that’s growing globally.

How we support elderly people, how we move elderly people and patients – robotics will play a major role there. In communication – telemedicine, connecting people – robotics will be very important.”

Ana cited the challenge of negative attitudes towards robots that she had encountered among elderly people in Romania, and the practical difficulties of using robots in properties without elevators, but also made a positive point: “We have small pet robots and elderly people find it pleasant to take care of these.”

Noting that ‘elderly’ was a broad concept, Stefano spoke about geriatric robotics, which could include assistive robotics, prosthetics and rehabilitation, and went on to talk about developments in diagnostics and treatment. “There’s a revolution going on in surgery. If the first step was from open to minimal surgery, the next step is intervention radiology. If you can navigate a needle inside the body using MRI, CT scans then you can steer a robot to a certain location, do a biopsy, see if a tumour is malignant and detect cancer much more accurately than by hand. You can go further – one dream I have is auto breast oncology where during a check-up you steer a needle to a location in the body, optically analyse the tissue through the needle and if it’s malignant you can heat and kill the cells, curing a cancer someone didn’t even know they had. Colonoscopy is another area – the sky is not even the limit.”

The discussion had shifted slightly from care for the elderly, but it remained firmly focused on the headline theme, robotics for humanity.

Staying with Stefano, a question about using swarm robotics to carry out precise surgical interventions produced a swift response: “A swarm of robots going into the body I see as sci fi, although there are a lot of activities within micro-robotics to deploy medicine locally. I do believe in swarm but not within the human body, at least not in the next 10 years. But aerial robotics for inspection or environmental monitoring are a valuable use of swarms. They can communicate with each other as a team is a very important concept, although in aerial robotics, we will have to tackle problems of legislation and liability in the coming years. We have developed pipe inspection robots to detect gas leaks. A swarm of robots could find the exact spot of a leak so instead of breaking up the whole street to fix it you could be very precise. Swarms underground or in the air could do something very useful.”

With time running out, the panel was asked…

What is being done to make robots socially acceptable?

This wasn’t about programming robots to make polite conversation, but to make people comfortable with having robots around and interacting with them.

Senka’s research was relevant here: “One of the things we are currently tackling at KCL is a project called Trust In Human AI Partnership is the key word. We’re trying to build algorithms and make all AI systems as well as robots trusted by humans, so AI systems and robots must be socially acceptable. We need to build this trust by trying to make explainable algorithms, so humans can ask questions about the decisions made and follow how they came to make this decision. We’re also tackling moral concepts in decision making by robots, and working with lawyers and social scientists so there is a legal side to this alongside the technical aspect.

With time running out, John Erland added a further perspective: “It’s our duty to make robots easy to use and understand. We’ve seen fantastic results from nursing homes, where staff learn how to use them in just a few minutes.

Acknowledging that there could have been a whole discussion on that one topic alone, the panel gave their responses to the final question:

If there was one thing that you’d like the audience to know or think differently about robots, what would it be?


Francesco: “We have to close the gap to see robots like service robots and use them more and more and not be scared of them.”

Ana: “We need education about robotics. People believe robots can move like Schwarzenegger. What we try to do with kids is explain that every robot has an emergency button, and they are programmed by humans. It’s a lot easier when you have robots with you, and they can see how flexible they are – or not.”

José-Manuel: “It’s important to be very humble. We’ve seen how important it is this year to collaborate, to help other people, take short steps and do it right.”

John Erland: “Robots make our lives easier, better and more beautiful and we should get more robots out there so people get the experience.”

Stefano: “Be very critical with the media. What you see is often not the reality. You hear about AI and think everything is possible. Tell everyone to Google the Moravec Paradox and read about it because there’s a huge misconception [about robotics]. The reality is far more complex.”

Senka: “Keep in mind that there’s an army of roboticists and engineers and also lawyers and social scientists developing robots to make the world a better place and working to make them safe and work nicely with people.”