British sceptism about robotics
Why Britain hasn’t fallen in love with robots – yet

Cartoon of robots in a love boat
© Goethe Institut London. Illustration: Carlos D'Agaro.

British scepticism and a fear of the Terminator could stop the robotic revolution. 

By Chris Stokel-Walker

Science fiction has long fixated on the idea of the robot, long before Czech writer Karel Čapek coined the term in a 1920 play. The idea that a non-human counterpart could help us – whether in a slave-like relationship, as Čapek envisaged, or as equal compatriots – has been a dream of humans. But for the last 100 years or more, the robot as written hasn’t matched the robot in reality.

Until now. Thanks to huge advances in technology, the robot revolution is nearly upon us. Companies such as Boston Dynamics, whose human-like robots can leap, pounce and dance over and around objects, and SoftBank Robotics, whose Pepper robot has helped guide customers to their goals for nearly a decade, have kickstarted the renaissance in robots. We’ve never been closer to science fiction becoming science fact.

It’s something that the Goethe-Institut London has become interested in, deploying its own Pepper, the humanoid robot, to work in the institute’s library to locate different genres of books for guests. Nor is the institute alone in dipping its toes in the robotic water – organisations and individuals worldwide are tasking robots to do work in their own ways.

It’s the natural advancement of decades of technology encroaching on our lives. “In the west, we’re very used to information screens, and used to punching information in when thinking about how to get somewhere,” says Jonathan Aitken, an academic looking at the use of robots at the University of Sheffield. “Pepper has the advantage of being able to take you to that place physically – and there’s an opportunity for engagement or interaction then with the robot that you may not have had previously.”

However, while there are more than three million industrial robots worldwide, and likely thousands more humanoid-like robots with some level of artificial intelligence or interaction, the UK has lagged behind in the race to robotics. Just over 2,200 robots were installed in the UK in 2020, according to the International Federation of Robotics – one-tenth the number installed in Germany over the same time period, and around five percent of the number of new robots arriving in Japan that year. The country is ranked 22nd in the world for its use of robots, and is dropping down the table as other countries more eagerly adopt the technology.

“In the UK we’re still exploring different types of robot,” says David Cameron of the University of Sheffield, who studies human-computer interaction and has researched the potential use of robots in children’s classrooms. “It’s still very early in the imagination of what these things could actually be and where they might fit.” One of the biggest hangups that Britons have that holds up the deployment of such robots in the UK is a simple question: “Is this actually going to be useful?”

Technological telescoping – and the way we view technology as a finished product – is also one reason that robots haven’t yet seen widespread adoption in the UK, reckons Cameron. We’ve become spoiled by the turn-it-on-and-it-works ubiquity of the smartphone and other devices. We’ve forgotten that to get to the point of technology that just works, it took a lot of iterative steps where the technology wasn’t quite perfect. And because robots aren’t yet perfectly able to pick up all of humanity’s foibles, uncertainties and prevarications, we’re unwilling to embrace them wholeheartedly. “I think we’re looking for the robot that is that final big reveal,” says Cameron. “Pepper looks like it could be, but then actually when it comes down to it, it does far less than we might expect.”

That disappointment or sense of underwhelming interactions with robots – whether in the past or perceived ones in the future – may be in part why we’re so slow to adopt them where other countries are happy to. One in four Brits believe robots will never be able to develop intelligence on par with humans, according to YouGov. In Japan, where service robots have been put to use in limited, carefully defined ways for years, trust is higher. There, robots have been deployed to guide visitors around Tokyo; to treat the elderly with compassion and care, providing them with a voice to talk to and a familiar face; as well as to assemble vehicles and build devices.

“In the western world, we don’t know quite how to interact with robots,” says Aitken. Interestingly, we don’t expect flawless interactions with robots – and in fact find them offputting if they’re diligent but not welcoming. 

“We found that a robot that was more likeable, but made mistakes, was preferred to a robot that did everything absolutely perfectly,” he says.

Instead, we prefer human-like interactions, and the ability to converse with a robot, even if it means that they don’t always get things right 100 percent of the time.

And without that personality, we’re often wary of robots and their intentions. That could, in part, be thanks to the way we often encounter them – in popular culture, film and television. “Our exposure as we grow up is through films like Terminator,” says Aitken. “That isn’t an accurate reflection of where we begin to apply robots within a process.” Ultimately, getting the UK to the point of adopting robots comfortably is a process of education and – ironically, given the circumstances – deprogramming all the negative connotations that come with it and instead building up the positive elements. To do that, those developing robots that interact with humans also need to amp up their ability to listen, emote and interact with those they may come into contact with who could be sceptical of their intentions and goals.

“It’s an educational process, because robots are a very alien thing to us,” says Aitken. “It’s about changing the exposure, and showing good things that happen in robotics, but also showing some of these processing. We need to go behind the mirror of how some of this works. Some of it’s seen as a black box that looks as if it’s magic.”