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Issue Overview

The word “robot” was invented by the Czech artist Josef Čapek and introduced into the English language by his brother, Karel Čapek, in his 1920 science-fiction play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). In Czech, the term “roboti” is used figuratively to mean hard work, but for Čapek it conjured something closer to I, Robot and The Terminator.

For the Global Agenda Council on Robotics & Smart Devices, a robot is broadly defined as any human-made device/system capable of carrying out a task that specifically requires actuation. Think of welding robots in factories, deep sea and outer space exploratory vehicles, military drones, minimally invasive surgical systems, autonomous cars, automated vacuum cleaners, exoskeleton artificial limbs, and so forth.

Smart devices, on the other hand, are electronic devices with embedded computing capabilities. These are becoming ubiquitous. Think of the four billion mobile phones in the world today and the many more sensor and other computing devices that will populate the planet in the decades ahead.

The Council focuses on the successful integration of these two fields of technology, with one another and with society. During the past year, very real successes in robot technologies have meant that it can now move past an exclusive focus on technical innovation and applications – toward a focus on integration with other devices in the world (which are increasingly becoming “smarter”), with humans, and with society to improve the state of the world.

Robots and smart devices have traditionally been developed as tools that people control. Progress has generally been driven by technical innovation and applications – manufacturing, search and rescue, exploration, health, military, entertainment – applications that are either enabled by these tools or rendered more productive.

While this focus has allowed the Council to showcase the many practical and important applications of robotics, unintended social consequences have also arisen. For example, in some economies productivity improvements due to robots have inspired fear in workers of losing their jobs. Autonomous robots, like military drones, heighten the risks of war when machines that cannot think or feel like humans take over the tasks of highly trained, ethically grounded people.

The Council has, therefore, proposed a new model to drive the global transformation of the role of robotics and smart devices. The new model, Robot & I, highlights both risks and opportunities, appeals to and involves multistakeholders, and depends on a multi-disciplinary approach to robotics and smart devices. In particular, it emphasizes the following five dimensions of integration:

  • Social dimension that allows a better understanding of what aspects of being human people care most about, and are most representative of being human. This requires a psychological and sociological understanding of people’s needs, desires, capabilities and traits, and a neuro-cognitive understanding of the physical and behavioural dimensions of being human. This dimension also includes developing an ethical understanding of what people fear most – losing their jobs, relationships, uniqueness, etc – and the locus of those fears in beliefs about the respective roles and nature of humans and robots
  • Technical dimension involving the development and deployment of actuating, sensing and communication devices and systems to realize “intelligent” robots that may be more aptly referred to as thinking, actuated machines – machines whose intelligence and control may be distributed
  • Economic dimension necessary to develop an entrepreneurial culture and support for entrepreneurs to successfully launch and grow companies that follow this model
  • Legal dimension to develop regulatory structures around robots in society and across geographical boundaries of nation states. In particular, the question needs to be asked: in a distributed system of human/machine, where is the locus of control and responsibility?
  • Cultural dimension to ensure that this model functions globally, in all cultural contexts, encompassing differences in national beliefs, ethnicities, generations, social standing (classes) and work contexts

This new model underscores the fact that the integration of robotics and smart devices involves physicality, sensing, computing, communication and actuation. These features of robotics derive from the importance of sensing the world around the robot, responding through and actuating the robot in a web (Internet) of things and people in the socially rich and culturally specific physical world.

The inherent physicality of the robot and its ability to act on the world has been the primary source of risks and fear in the past. However, under the new model, all its dimensions are taken into account, and all stakeholders are involved in the design of these technologies from the outset. This is intended to diminish risks and increase the opportunities for deployment of the robot in the physical world.


At the World Economic Forum’s Summit on the Global Agenda 2011, in Abu Dhabi, members of the Council discussed the new model with several other Councils.

David Peters, Universal Robotics, held discussions with the Global Agenda Council on Brain & Cognitive Sciences. His discussions reinforced the interplay of the five dimensions of the new model. Human systems trend to repeatable structures that share common forms. These forms can be reinforced, and their power amplified by technology. Actuated machines controlled through smart devices present both opportunities and risks across the spectrum of the model by virtue of their ability to connect similar, yet seemingly diverse, human-centred attributes.

Professor Raffaello D’Andrea, ETH Zurich, met with the Global Agenda Council on Terrorism. His discussion centred on the possible misuse of autonomous air vehicles for terrorist activities. Scenarios were explored where the technology could be used for inflicting casualties in populated areas. For example, tens – or even hundreds – of individuals carrying small drones in backpacks. The drones could carry explosives or biological weapons. Once released, they would home in on their target which could be a public place such as a stadium, or a government building such as the US White House. Individually, the damage that one of these drones could inflict may be marginal, but collectively, it could be substantial. The distributed redundant weapon is robust to individual failures and neutralization by law enforcement organizations. The issue of the legality of weaponized, autonomous robots was also discussed, and the need for legal standards in this domain.

Justine Cassell, Carnegie Mellon University, met with the Global Agenda Council on Rule of Law, whose members shared a common focus concerning autonomy, agency and responsibility of individuals – traits increasingly shared by humans and robots, and whose definition might therefore need to change as robots are increasingly integrated into society.

Cassell also met with the Global Agenda Council on Information & Communication Technologies and discussed the intersection of interests concerning notions of the digital person. Finally, she met with the Global Agenda Council on Social Networks to explore the intersections between the Council’s new Robot & I model and their work on trust in technology and mediated by technology, the changing concepts of identity in a technologically enhanced world, and the relationship between personal data and social and economic good when smart devices are interconnected with one another, and with actuated machines.

After the Summit on the Global Agenda 2011, in Abu Dhabi, Council members have continued to promote the new model at various venues:

David Peters published an op-ed titled, “The robot is us as technology expands self”, San Francisco Chronicle, 5 February 2012, 

At the Forum’s Annual Meeting 2012, in Davos, Chua Kee Chaing, National University of Singapore, presented the new model at the IdeasLab on Shaping New Models of Development with the Global Agenda Councils. The presentation pointed out that smart devices and robotics have the capacity to increase development in developing nations by shrinking the digital divide, improving healthcare, reducing child mortality, and extending the reach of education. However, there are risks. For example, each country has a unique culture which might be affected as Internet access becomes pervasive. Automation takes away jobs, primarily from the most vulnerable. Thus, as per the new model, before considering the integration of robotics and smart devices into the development process – the social, cultural and ethical impact must be evaluated first.

Again, at the Annual Meeting 2012, Cassell presented the new model at the IdeasLab on Collaboration between Humans and Machines (Carnegie Mellon IdeasLab). Her presentation emphasized the need to leave behind the notion of machine as expert and person as novice, and move towards a future in which humans and machines collaborate for a better world. She also referred to the Global Agenda Council on Robotics & Smart Devices in a Forum:Blog titled, “The human in human concerns”, highlighting the need to remember that it is people who are at the heart of technology developers’ work.

In its next term, the Council plans to further promote and develop its new model through various activities. These include: a one-day workshop at the National University of Singapore, on 13 August 2012; engaging the Global Agenda Councils on Social Networks and Information & Communication Technologies in a collaborative project for 2012-2013; and identifying the most promising application area for the Council to test out its new model against specific data. This last planned work item will demonstrate the effectiveness of the new model. Effectiveness leading to the development of robotic technologies that are more appropriate and accepted in our human-centric physical world. It is time to consider a new model for technological development of robotics and smart devices, not just as tools that people control, but in an integrated manner, taking into consideration the social, cultural, legal and economic dimensions.


The opinions expressed here are those of the individual members of the Council and not of the World Economic Forum or any institutions to which they are affiliated.