Smart machines and robots: An interview with the expert Ulrich Eberl

Smart machines in general, and robots in particular, are becoming increasingly important in industry and society. They will bring massive changes to all areas of our life – at offices and factories, as well as everyday life, at home or on the move. But what exactly are smart machines and what impact will they have on our jobs? Can they even become as intelligent as people? We asked the expert for smart machines, Ulrich Eberl, and gained interesting insights.

Smart machines – a definition

Infineon: Mr. Eberl, just what are smart machines?

Ulrich Eberl: Well, of course, you could well ask whether my small NAO robot is a smart machine. I don’t think so. You can teach him a lot, for example, to quote from Hamlet, play soccer or buy a pretzel for me from the bakery – which is pretty amusing. But they’re modes of behavior you dictate to machines.

In my view, smart machines are more. They are becoming more and more like us humans, in all possible fields. They can walk, grip things, speak, listen, see, recognize objects and handle them. These are all things that NAO can also do already to a limited extent. What he can’t do – and that’s something smart machines are already capable of – is read and write, for instance.

Machine learning

Infineon: How far has this ability to read and write already progressed?

Ulrich Eberl: There are numerous smart machines that can read natural-language texts. However, they are not robots like NAO, but computer programs. They can read specialist medical literature and patients’ files, for example, in seconds and then advise physicians. Or they can carry out research in legal texts for attorneys and help in making financial investments by analyzing business reports and correlating them with the latest news and stock market data.

Robot journalists are also able to write simple texts themselves, such as local weather reports or sports results. The machine creates a short text as soon as it’s known, for example, what the final score of a soccer game is and who scored the goals when.

Infineon: Are smart machines also capable of learning?

Ulrich Eberl: Yes, and that is indeed the crucial aspect. Today’s smart machines constantly learn new things, for example, by observing and imitating. There are already robots in factories where you simply demonstrate a movement to them and they can replicate it right away.

Infineon: How do smart machines learn?

Ulrich Eberl: The deep learning methods which have caused such a big stir for the past five years are based on the principles of the human brain. The machines often have billions of artificial nerve cells that are interconnected in a complex manner – they learn through reinforcement and feedback. We’re no different. When we’ve learned often enough that a red light means “Stop, danger!”, that association comes to our mind as soon as we see one.

If you show a deep learning network millions of pictures of animals or faces, it will become perfect in recognizing animals and people. The same goes for voice recognition, text analysis or translation programs. Google or intelligent loudspeakers like Alexa improve with every search query or voice command.

Infineon: Can you also send a robot to school?

Ulrich Eberl: Yes, you can! And it’s already being done. My favorite robot is the iCub at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Genoa, which, incidentally, is a hot spot for robotics and artificial intelligence. In Genoa, the iCub learns like a child at kindergarten. It sits in a classroom or walks about there and constantly wants to explore new things. That way it learns how to clear the table or what it can do with its toys. For example, it picks up a beaker, looks at it and asks its human teacher: “What is that called?” And the teacher answers: “That’s a beaker and it’s orange.” Whenever the iCub learns something, it receives a reward.

Infineon: How do you reward a robot?

Ulrich Eberl: Well, not by feeding it more power, for example. It’s a bit like good grades at school. The robot simply receives points to collect. That means it plays its life like a computer game. If it does something right, it’s awarded a point. While conducting research for my book “Smart Machines,” I also met such an iCub in Osaka, the world capital of robotics, in Japan. It won points for correctly predicting what the person in front of it would do next. I was sitting once at the table next to his teacher and a cup of tea was in front of them. The iCub said: “You will take the cup and drink.”

The only problem was that the cup was too far away. The human could not have reached out and picked it up – and the robot also saw that. What it then did was what was interesting: It simply pushed the cup toward the human. As if to say: “Now take it, I want my point.” The exciting thing was that no one had programmed it to do that. The robot had even taught itself how to push a cup. This kind of reward learning might be one of the best ways to make robots suitable for use in everyday life one day.

Infineon: Who teaches robots?

Ulrich Eberl: In the future we will definitely need something like teachers for machines. After all, you need to teach the machine what is sensible and how to solve problems. People will naturally assume that task, just like we bring up our own children. If we want machines that make decisions autonomously, we need to ingrain our ethical rules in them. That’s why there are now initial university chairs for machine ethics. How does a machine differentiate between good and evil? That’s an extremely important question.

Robots and humans

Infineon: Can robots have emotions?

Ulrich Eberl: An interesting question. I’ve encountered Roboy often, a nice little robot with a skeleton and an egg-shaped head. It can say something like: “Oh, I’m so shy.” Then it looks to the ground and blushes. That’s really sweet. But, of course, you need to be clear about one thing here: That’s only simulated. Machines don’t have real emotions. You can make them feel hungry for electricity when their battery’s running down, or feel pain when an engine runs hot, but they aren’t human feelings.

Infineon: Just how similar can robots be to humans?

Ulrich Eberl: Researchers in Japan are building machines that you can hardly tell apart from humans. When you’re standing in front of such androids, you have to look closely to tell whether they’re a real person or a machine. Even their skin is soft and warm and has pores. The eyes are perfect. As are their mouth and hair. They speak like a human, flutter their eyelashes and smile. It’s pretty amazing.

A Danish professor commissioned a clone of himself in Japan. He then took it with him to Copenhagen and let it hold a lecture. And – this is no joke – the professor said that the students there only noticed at the break that it wasn’t their professor holding the lecture.

Infineon: What might cooperation between humans and robots look like in the future?

Ulrich Eberl: The cooperation will be very close. That’s already the case in part now. The company Glory in Japan manufactures automated teller machines, for example. Fairly humanoid robots sit there next to people and work together with them. They hand each other workpieces, assemble components together – and what’s funny: The robots even join in the morning sport session. Now you may well ask: What’s the point of that? The machines don’t need it. That may be the case. But it makes the robots more likable, say Glory’s managers.

Infineon: Is fear of robots a western characteristic?

Ulrich Eberl: Robots taking over the world is a very western myth. I’ve also learned that from my travels around the world. That’s completely different in Japan. We in the west do indeed have a tradition of conflict between human and machine. That goes back a long way. To the golem, to Frankenstein. HAL 9000, Blade Runner, Terminator, Transformers and all the rest of them, in movies, literature and plays. Human against machine – that’s what it’s about in the west.

It’s completely different in the east. In Japan, for instance, there’s a centuries-old tradition of helping machines. As far back as three hundred years ago, the Japanese built large mechanized puppets that served tea, for example. And so it continued. After the Second World War came mangas, video games and anime films with Astro Boy, a robot boy who helps people against evil. That’s a completely different tradition: It’s about harmony between human and machine. That’s why I believe there’s a lot of cultural influence behind the issue. And a lot of science fiction thinking. Super-intelligent machines which threaten humanity are far removed from reality.

Robots and jobs

Infineon: What do robots mean for jobs?

Ulrich Eberl: Smart machines – in other words, robots and learning algorithms – will definitely change just about all jobs. Yet the crucial question is: Will they take our jobs away in aggregate terms or even create more new ones than they destroy? There are many studies on this in the meantime. One of the most well-known is the Oxford study, in which 700 occupations were examined to determine the likelihood that the main activities in them can be automated in the next twenty years.

Ulrich Eberl: Above all routine office activities where data is collected, organized and processed. Accountants, logistics workers, insurance reps, assistants of attorneys or financial advisers. After all, when banking advisors ask a computer system that can analyze texts to analyze a business report, for example, and provide recommendations on investments, they pass on the result to their customers. So the natural question is: Why do I need the financial adviser in the first place? Why can’t I just speak with the computer or some chatbot?

Ulrich Eberl: No. The fact that something can be automated says nothing about whether it pays off, is legally permissible or we even want that. Let’s take truck drivers. Even if and when vehicles can drive autonomously, I don’t believe truck drivers will soon be out of a job. I always imagine driving along the highway and then a huge truck with no one in it passes me. I don’t think we’ll accept that. It’ll be more like the situation with pilots: Aircraft fly most of the route autonomously as it is. You need the pilots during takeoff and landing or if something out of the ordinary happens. And the situation will be similar with trucks.

Ulrich Eberl: Creative and complex professions, such as researchers, engineers, photographers, architects, composers, designers and craftsmen. But also vocations that require social skills, such as teachers, social workers, caregivers, managers, coaches or marketing specialists. And, of course, physicians. That’s very interesting because, like banking advisers, physicians will in future have more and more systems that read patients’ files and specialist literature for them and which they ask for advice. So you may well ask: Why do I need the physician at all? But the answer is clear: People will still want to talk with human doctors. Their empathy is half the road to recovery. And sometimes they know intuitively what their patients, whom they’ve known for years, need.

Ulrich Eberl: Plenty. Just think about how difficult it is to protect such computer systems against attacks and make them reliable. Then, as I said earlier, you need teachers for smart machines. And, of course, the machines have to be designed and produced first. Incidentally, the situation’s a bit like that for software developers. There were as good as no software developers at the beginning of the 1980s because there were no PCs. Today, there are around 20 million software specialists worldwide.

Infineon: Can machines even protect jobs?

Ulrich Eberl: Yes. That’s shown by a look at the three countries that now have the highest degree of automation in industry: South Korea, Japan and Germany. They also have the lowest unemployment. That’s actually counter-intuitive. You would think that people would become jobless where there’s a lot of automation. But if you do it right, industry will be more competitive and products can be sold well on the world market. That in turns means there’s enough work.

A look ahead

Infineon: Will smart machines soon be part of everyday life?

Ulrich Eberl: All in all, you can say that more has happened in the field of smart machines and artificial intelligence in the past five years than in the whole 50 years before. It’s truly a field that’s booming, and we’re just at the outset. In the next 20 to 30 years, the computing power, storage capacity and data transfer rate of microchips will increase thousand-fold – and their price will still be the same as it is now. At the same time, software is also becoming increasingly powerful – and that means a boost in performance in terms of the learning methods for smart machines and how knowledge is generated and processed.

That trend will impact all of us. Regardless of our age and occupation. These smart machines will become just as integral a part of our life as smartphones are now. The first smartphones came on the market ten years ago and many of us now can’t imagine life without them. The pace of advances in them is enormous. That will be similar with smart machines. We’ll see them everywhere, often without noticing they’re learning machines. We’ll live in a community with smart machines and work hand in hand with them. We’ll have them in the home, in the office, in factories and on the roads. Everywhere.

Biography of Dr. Ulrich Eberl

Biography of Dr. Ulrich Eberl

Dr. Ulrich Eberl (on the left) is regarded as one of the leading experts in the fields of smart machines, artificial intelligence and robotics. After gaining his doctorate in physics, Ulrich Eberl worked for the technology publications of Daimler AG. He was then in charge of communication on research, innovations and future trends at Siemens for 20 years before going freelance in 2016. Ulrich Eberl is not only the author of the well-known specialist books “Life in 2050” and “Smart Machines,” as well as the novel “Tatort Zukunft” (Scene of the Crime: The Future”), but also holds many talks on future technologies – included the talk “Smart Machines” at Infineon Warstein, which was the basis for this interview. His robot and companion NAO accompanied him during the talk.

Last update: May 2018