The traditional BFF (best friend forever) is set to be replaced by a robot equivalent for many young people, according to new research.

One in five 9-18-year-olds believe a robot could one day become their friend, and 8% admit they already speak to their voice-activated personal assistant like a pal.

The research, commissioned by EngineeringUK ahead of Tomorrow’s Engineers Week, reveals how school children feel about living and working with robots.

Voice-activated personal assistants are a relatively new phenomenon in the home, with Amazon Alexa celebrating its third birthday during Tomorrow’s Engineers Week (6th November). Yet, the awareness of voice-activated personal assistants among young people is vast, with only 2% saying they haven’t heard of them.

Two fifths (41%) of young people already have a voice-activated personal assistant on their phone and a quarter (23%) have one at home, such as Amazon Alexa, Samsung Smart Home and Google Home Assistant, yet 35% of young people say they do not feel adequately prepared for working with technology and computers in the future.

With Artificial Intelligence transforming the workplace at a staggering rate, the research reveals a third of young people (34%) actively welcome the opportunity to work alongside robots while 29% anticipate that robots will take on the mundane jobs that humans don’t want. Only 14% of young people feel nervous about robots being used in the workplace, with girls more so than boys (19% and 9% respectively).

Experts from leading UK universities have compiled their top tips to living and working with robots and AI.  These include:

  1. Get to know the robot and understand what the robot can do and what it cannot do. The more you understand robots and AI, the more you will get out of them.
  2. We can achieve more by working together: Robots and AIs have limitations; they can help us with some tasks, but need our help with others.
  3. Keep your personal information secure. Robots and AIs can be hacked, just like other computer systems.
  4. Regularly turn the robot off (and the internet/email/surfing) to enjoy social life with other humans!

James Law, Senior Experimental Officer at Sheffield Robotics – part of the University of Sheffield – advises all students and employees to embrace future technology:

“Robots today are being designed to do dull, repetitive, dangerous, and time-consuming jobs that will free up our time for more rewarding activities. The more users embrace the technology, the more they will get out of it.”

“Whilst robots will be helpful in many roles, they will still struggle with things that we find easy. By working together, robots and humans will be able to achieve more than we would alone.

“The research suggests that children may need to think more carefully about their GCSE and A Level options to prepare them for the world of work.

“What’s clear is that almost every job will require a degree of understanding about how robots and AI work, so in that sense it has never been more important that young people consider engineering in their careers.

“From fighting diseases and recovering from natural disasters to renewable energy and manufacturing, engineering is a way for young people to pursue their interests. Tomorrow’s Engineers Week will be a vital part of helping young people pursue their dreams.”

In contrast to the traditional image that is conjured up of robots, Angelo Cangelosi, Professor in Artificial Intelligence and Cognition at the University of Plymouth, and Director of its Centre for Robotics and Neural Systems, said:

“We are constantly exploring the possibilities and boundaries of AI and robotics. We are still a little way off from having robots interact with humans on a deep level, but we are making progress all of the time particularly in domestic situations and driverless technology. The evolution of robots is not as simple as a straight line, from A-B, but that is part of the challenge and excitement of this field of research.

“Robots of today are a fascinating preview of how we might be living our lives tomorrow. From companions capable of reading our expressions and remembering previous conversations, to domestic home-helps that can go to the shops for us, it is really just a matter of time until we see ‘deep learning’ technologies being integrated into robotics that will transform their capabilities.”

Beth Elgood, Director of Communications at EngineeringUK, said:

“Engineers are, and will continue to be, at the forefront of technological innovation such as robots and AI, developments which will play an increasing role in all of our personal and working lives.  Tomorrow’s Engineers Week is an important part of the drive to inspire the next generation of engineers and will this year see a network of over 300 employers, schools and professional engineering institutions working together to do just that.”

Tomorrow’s Engineers Week (#TEWeek17) will take place between 6-10 November 2017. 

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