iCoffee and Social Robots

Manchester Airport (IATA: MAN, ICAO: EGCC), November 13, 2018

It took me a while to realize, but the coffee machine is now an iPad in the 1903 Lounge at Manchester Airport Terminal 3.

OK, I know there is a coffee machine somewhere under the counter, but I miss the aroma, noise, and sight of good coffee being brewed! There’s a social element about coffee, of course in the drinking, but also in the making, that a touch-screen interaction just doesn’t impart.

Anyway, I punched in my macchiato order to the iPad barista, with the result being a coffee that was probably a bit better than the usual result from the large table-top coffee machine that preceded it. Not really a big deal.

This is, I suppose, an appropriate spot to contemplate machines and humans. The lounge celebrates the Wright brothers’ first powered flight in 1903. Among inspiring quotations from these pioneers of flight posted in and around the lounge, I took note of this one:

Orville WrightIn short, technological advance requires the challenging of accepted wisdom – and it can challenge our accepted notions of what machines are and how they should function.

Sipping my coffee shot, I reflected on the parallel trend of adapting new technology so that it emulates as closely as possible what it aims to displace. In an earlier post, I wrote about the use of biological engineering to deliver an Impossible Burger that looks, smells, bleeds, and tastes pretty much like a meat burger. While made without the cow, this food innovation targets the mass market of carnivores rather than vegetarians.

Similarly, as I learned last week at a panel in the amazing Manchester Cathedral on Robots vs Loneliness, “social robots” are on the rise. Doing things that humans do, such as caring for the elderly, playing with children, or even serving as sexual companions, these humanoid machines are built to look, act, respond, talk, and emote like people.

Presenters on the panel, part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science, probed whether these machines could go beyond being functionally useful to authentically produce deeper social interactions and feelings with their users. All panel members were specialists in the fields of social robotics. Chaired by Scott Midson, an expert in posthumanism from the University of Manchester, the panel comprised Irena Papadopoulos (Middlesex University, studying culturally-aware robots in healthcare), Beth Singler (University of Cambridge and producer of “Friend in the Machine“), James Young (BBC presenter of “Can Robots Love Us?“), and David Cameron (University of Sheffield researcher in human-computer interaction).

The panel explored whether social robots could reduce loneliness, which – as was noted – greatly affects the current younger generation as well as seniors. Yet, despite offering several examples of useful robots in the home and in play, the social effects still seemed unclear. Indeed, one audience member worried that engaging more with social robots might make people less capable of relating to other humans.

Homes can already house “intelligent” systems embedded in appliances, temperature and lighting controls, and personal assistants (such as Amazon’s Alexa). Like that iPad coffee machine controller, these machines all serve useful purposes (though worries start up when the robot vacuum cleaner is collecting data about us as well as dust).

Right now, social robots still seem limited both in what they can do and in how they relate to humans. Future machines are likely to be far better not only in performing tasks but in sensing clues about what we want and feel, in understanding what we say, and engaging in conversation.

Whether resembling humans or not, at some point, multi-functional and more capable social robots will be available. We might buy them, for ourselves, children or elderly parents. They might be valuable in complementing hard-pressed teachers, nurses and care workers (although I hope they won’t replace these people). We might even see the growth of social prescribing, where social robots are made available to those with unmet social needs (as one of the panelists suggested).

So, will social robots reduce or increase loneliness? That will depend on how they are designed, used, and modified by humans, and – more importantly – on all the other “non-robotic” steps we take (or don’t take), through social, health, neighborhood, and economic development, to ensure human and social well-being in our communities.

The rise of “social” robots comes at a time when other uses of robotics are growing. We are seeing expanded applications – actual and projected – of robots and AI in the workplace, transportation, agriculture, security and other realms. We will surely need to anticipate and consider not only the specific effects of any one application, but also the broader mix of implications and consequences of being surrounded, aided, and possibly supplanted by robotic machines.

Coffee consumed, thoughts written down, it is now time to depart. As I board the plane, I’m comforted to find that it’s still piloted and staffed by humans!

Pepper the Robot
Pepper listened avidly to the presentations at at the panel on social robots.


Flight landed, I eventually arrived by train at Hengelo in the Netherlands, on my way to the University of Twente.  After two hours on the train, I could not resist stopping at a cafe in town that offered “Real Coffee” made by “Real People”! Alas, just before placing my order, I discovered the cafe could not take any of the credit or debit payment cards I had with me. Stymied by system incompatibility and no Euro cash, the result this time: no coffee!

real coffee
Coffee Industry Espresso Bar, by Hengelo train station in The Netherlands

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