Should humanoid robots be asexual

Super dentures and reality

Thanks to assistance devices, people could soon achieve almost superhuman performance. There are, however, more pressing goals than the development of superhumans, says Robert Riener.

What was recently described as a future perspective has become reality: the first people who call themselves cyborgs have had chips implanted and use them to open doors and make cashless payments. The latest robotic hand prostheses enable all types of grip and dexterity. Parathletes compete with their running and jumping prostheses against the best, non-impaired athletes - and win. And robotic pets and talking humanoid robots are cheering up nursing homes.

The media even predict that high technology will enable a physiological expansion and improvement that will overshadow all previous human achievements: Hearing aids should one day give ultimate hearing, retinal implants make the vision as sharp as that of an eagle and motorized exoskeletons for soldiers transform into a persistent fighting machine.

Hero myths and Hollywood

Despite all these prophecies, the fact that we will become super humans tomorrow thanks to robotics belongs in the world of hero myths and in Hollywood. Compared to the technology available today, our body is a marvel that, thanks to its complexity and performance, allows an extremely wide range of tasks. Hundreds of efficiently working muscles, thousands of independently working motor units as well as millions of sensory receptors and billions of nerve cells enable us to do delicate tweezers as well as to lift heavy loads. In addition, our musculoskeletal system is very adaptable, can partially repair itself and requires very little energy, which we consume through manageable amounts of food.

The machines don't imitate us so quickly. Many of today's assistance devices remain laboratory experiments or niche products for very specific tasks. The disabled athlete Markus Rehm does not use his innovative jump prosthesis for walking or driving a car. Today's standard arm prostheses do not help with tying shoes and buttoning shirts. Lifting devices in care are not used for personal hygiene, nor are they used for psychological therapy. And the robotic pets are quickly weaned off once the batteries are empty.

Solve real problems

It cannot be denied that development is continuing. Since the scientific and industrial revolution, we have made ourselves dependent on insatiable progress and growth. In today's world we can no longer part with this progress and growth. There are, however, more pressing goals than superhuman development.

"We shouldn't waste our time with cyborg euphoria or digitization hysteria." Robert Riener

On the one hand, the engineers have to address the real problems of patients, the elderly and people with disabilities. Better technical solutions are needed that help people in their normal everyday lives at home and at work. We need motorized prostheses that still work in the rain and wheelchairs that are still maneuverable in the snow and still fit through the door. Talking care robots must also be understood by the hearing impaired pensioner and must be easy and reliable to use. The batteries should last at least a full day so that they can be charged overnight.

In addition, the financial means must be available so that everyone has access to the current state of the art. This includes the high-quality household prosthesis for the family man as well as the second prosthesis for the athlete and the prosthesis for the pensioner.

Break down barriers

Avoiding or breaking down physical barriers is just as important as the further development of prostheses and assistance devices. If there were no stairs, you could save yourself a number of costly special solutions such as stair lifts or stair wheelchairs - probably also fully motorized exoskeletons.

And you have to ensure that the awareness of people with disabilities in society changes. There needs to be a better awareness of the everyday challenges of patients and people with disabilities. To do this, people have to be confronted with the issue of disability from an early age. Corresponding projects must be promoted at home and at school so that life with restrictions becomes normal and everyone in society can participate. Barriers must therefore also be broken down in people's minds.

The way to almost supernatural super people is still very long. All of us who read these lines today will not experience that again. In the meantime, we should try to get the earthly challenges under control in order to simplify everyday life with and without technology, enable participation and improve the quality of life, instead of wasting our time with cyborg euphorias or digitization hysteria.

To the author

Robert Riener
Professor for Sensorimotor Systems at the ETH Zurich