Future city illustration

How solarpunk ideals can inspire the robots of tomorrow

Image credit: Denisgo/Dreamstime

Focusing on human-centric design principles could help fulfil visions of a future in which machines work hand-in-hand with humans to improve everyone’s quality of life.

'Solarpunk' is an art movement depicting a sustainable future where technology meets nature, the world is at peace and humans collaborate with robots to build a better quality of life. All of these ideals sound very Utopian, but with the fast-paced advancement of technology - and society’s urge to become greener - the future could easily resemble solarpunk if the correct steps are taken.

If robots are envisioned as the turning point to reach this optimistic future, industry is currently heading in the right direction. We have seen robots take the place of pets, nurses, factory and retail workers - including ones that make good conversation. The latter, however, still creates hesitancy among people due to fear of the singularity, a hypothetical point at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable, with irreversible consequences for human civilisation.

This feeling of distress is exactly the opposite of what solarpunk wants to achieve. According to the movement, robots should make human life more manageable and relieve them of burdensome tasks, not take over and eradicate all of humanity as many see it, thanks to Hollywood.

What features should a robot have, if it’s going to live in harmony with humans and help society? The answer lies in having human-centric approaches.

Robots interacting daily with people should favour functionality and respect for shared spaces. In some cases, the less space they use, the better. For example, in the case of robotic delivery fleets in college campuses and cities, robots are mindful of where pedestrians are. Their small shape and spacial awareness mean they don’t disrupt people or harm their mobility and they always yield the right of way.

From a visual perspective, eye contact is known to develop trust, mutual respect and deeper attachments, so implementing it enhances bonding with humans. Nevertheless, crossing the line of looking too human produces the opposite effect. Often called the ‘uncanny valley’, robots that closely resemble people create negative responses. A friendly robot should be designed with enough human traits to create emotional connections, whilst staying wary of it not looking too realistic.

Lastly, a robot’s colouring can help it blend or stand out according to its environment. For example, using robots in earthy tones at secluded retreats integrates them into their surroundings to avoid distractions. On the other hand, a robotic forklift might use a bright colour to stand out from the warehouse’s palette so no one gets in its way while at work.

Besides the robot’s primary functions, secondary features should also strive to serve society. Circling back to robotic delivery fleets, while they roam around cities scanning walkways and possible paths to reach their destinations, they can also map out and report inaccessible areas or infrastructure damage. Government entities with access to this information can help improve cities in practical and cost-effective ways.

Additionally, many robots are designed to be powered by electricity instead of fossil fuels. They are helping meet zero carbon-emission goals and opening the gates to a more sustainable future. Since some of them replace transportation solutions that use diesel fuel, their increased usage will mean fewer vehicles depending on fossil fuels.

Robots’ dual capabilities must not be overlooked, but instead be emphasised to enhance people's lives. For this reason, bridging the gap between robots and humans has to be reiterated. Robots could allow humans to spend more time enjoying hobbies; nurturing curiosities; spending time with loved ones, or working on improving mental and physical health.

The robotics industry should align its purpose with the solarpunk ideals to build robots that supply everyday needs, relieving people of straining and taxing tasks.

The International Federation of Robotic Report predicts around 55 million units of household robots will be sold by the end of 2022. The idea is for more of them to be welcomed around every environment that humans inhabit. Some people might cringe at this prospect, which is why robotics companies should aim at turning these frowns upside down. Their ability to improve sustainable practices, increase efficiency and reduce costs are the same elements that humans are presently seeking.

Educating people about the role robots can play in their well-being is a responsibility that the robotics industry should prioritise, including sensitising society to accept them as active parts of it.

The solarpunk vision encourages technology to blend in with nature and human environments. With robots front and centre of this proposal, they should serve practical purposes on large and individual scales and create bonds with humans, making a more sustainable and enjoyable life possible with them.

Felipe Chavez is CEO and founder of Kiwibot.

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