Where is the future of robotics headed?

The future, the robots and ... us?

"What do you mean, am I a robot or not?" He says, looking at me. The shiny, teased hair. The slightly tanned, almost too flawless skin. The fixed gaze behind the slightly tinted glasses. The details suddenly jump to me. I've talked to Hiroshi Ishiguro for twelve minutes and 58 seconds without a single doubt about his humanity. But now I'm not so sure anymore. Did a machine set me up?

Artificial intelligence is already around us everywhere. We talk to smartphones, blindly trust the navigation system and let Facebook's algorithm select messages for us. But even bigger changes are rolling in, which is particularly evident at tech trade fairs such as Cebit in Hanover. The innovations exhibited here will reorganize everyday life, society and the economy. Promises of "higher productivity" and "lower costs" are buzzing through the exhibition halls. The future is now.

The global market for cognitive technologies will grow, from 980 million euros to 13 billion euros by 2020, predicts the IT industry association Bitkom. But there is also a downside. Technological progress will cost jobs. This has already happened in production. The next step is to use artificial intelligence in administration and services. According to estimates by the World Economic Forum, more than five million jobs will be lost in the industrialized nations by 2020. Do the technology enthusiasts at CeBIT care?

Robotics rock star: Hiroshi Ishiguro has built his own twin

Hiroshi Ishiguro sees his question puzzling me. He laughs. Now I am sure that it is really he who is sitting across from me - and not his robot twin who made him famous. Ishiguro firmly believes that robotics will improve our lives. And he believes robots should look like humans. So it is more natural to interact with them.

The 53-year-old researches at Osaka University in Japan, where he mainly develops androids, human-like robots. In his home country, robots are already normal. In his Cebit lecture, Ishiguro tells of android actors who have touched the "hearts and minds" of the human audience and android salespeople who made more sales than their human counterparts. These are not fantasies. All of this already exists. Ishiguro dreams of a robot society in which humans and robots live side by side, well, well. At some point, he says, there may be no more difference between the two.

When we talk after his lecture, he seems to want to get me and the other journalists excited about his ideas. He knocks on the table, speaks urgently and firmly. Robots are the best solution to counteract the aging of Japanese society. But would people who lose their jobs as a result find a new one? "Of course," says Ishiguro. "We can keep increasing productivity because we have technology, we have robots. And people can enjoy more freedom."

Cute job killer: Pepper service robot replaces many service activities

"I have a few things to think about," I tell Ishiguro after our interview. And mean it too. During his lecture he showed a video of a conversation between two robots and a human. The scenes reminded me of Hollywood science fiction films from about ten years ago. I got goose bumps. Ishiguro's vision of a brave new world strikes me as bizarre - and fascinating at the same time.

I now want to know what the future will feel like. That's why I meet with Pepper, a service robot that can give price information or give directions. Pepper is small, has round eyes and an eternal grin on his face. He - or she or it - should look cute.

The conversation is a bit tough. The speech recognition often does not work properly and the software installed on this Pepper hardly allows free conversation.

When is a person a person?

But then Pepper makes me a coffee after I ask him. And then he tells me a dirty joke and starts giggling, which makes me laugh too. There it is. I like a robot. I feel connected to, strange as it sounds, a machine. The gesture of looking at you from below - it's easy to forget that Pepper is nothing more than plastic, computer chips and binary sequences of numbers.

But he is also a job hog. In Japan, among other things, it is already widespread and it is also slowly showing up in Europe. A cruise company is already using Pepper on their ships; Deutsche Bahn wants to set it up for timetable information at train stations. People become superfluous.

Buses without steering wheels

Autonomous vehicles can have the same effect. At CeBIT, two self-driving buses transport visitors non-stop through a large exhibition hall - without a driver. As a result of Swiss customs, they already drive regularly for tests.

When I get in, I get to know a group of young computer science students. Just like me, they have never been in an autonomous vehicle before. After the short drive, they are thrilled. "It feels pretty real, like someone is just driving normally," says one. And what about the bus driver jobs? "It's the case in every area that one says: 'Robots are taking away the jobs.' But I think they'll just shift, "says another. But is that true?

Come in, only the driver stays outside: the Swiss Post buses run completely independently

Wolfgang Maaß, professor at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence in Saarbrücken, is skeptical. Technological progress creates new jobs, yes. However, most likely not enough to replace all of the discontinued ones. "There will be routine jobs - clerical work that has been seen as a life's work - that will be completely automated in the future," he says.

The sentence makes me think. Jobs are more than just jobs. They also create meaning and support. "There is no simple answer for this," says Maaß. In order to prevent unemployment and frustration, it is important to make school education more interdisciplinary. And you have to actively support people in finding new jobs. But there is no way back. "Mankind couldn't stop the fire. We couldn't stop the steam engine. Neither can we stop the computer and digitization."

Man versus machine?

My day at CeBIT ends with mixed feelings. Sure, I was enthusiastic about a lot. It's amazing what technology makes possible and how it simplifies our lives. At the same time, it worries me what that does to our society. Millions of people - replaced by machines, made superfluous and meaningless. In the back of my mind haunts the cliché of a dystopia in which robots rule over people - because of my conversation with Ishiguro, of course.

And then I remember: I asked him if I had to be afraid of the robots. I listen to our interview again to find his answer. "Whatever you want," he said. "Whatever you want."