Leona O'Neill

Leona O'Neill has been a journalist in Northern Ireland for over 20 years working with, among others, the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, Daily Mirror and the Irish News. She is also a news reporter on Q Radio, a weekly columnist with the Irish News and a commentator for the BBC. She is a mother of four children - two of them teenagers - and as such is also a full-time professional worrier.

Have you seen the Hollywood blockbuster I, Robot, starring Will Smith? It’s set in 2035 when highly intelligent robots fill public service positions throughout the world and are programmed to keep humans safe, until – as is always the case in Hollywood movies – it all goes terribly, horribly wrong.

The super intelligent Artificial Intelligence systems – which are well established in people’s homes and trusted in society – get some serious ideas above their stations and try to violently dominate and oppress humanity. To cut a very long and expensive story short, the robots try to take over the world and Will Smith saves the day.

The film was made in 2004 and at the time humanoid robots seemed a million miles away from society of the day. It was the year that Facebook was invented, Twitter was just a twinkle in Jack Dorsey’s eye and the public had not yet learned, nor had any real desire, to live fully in online worlds like they do today.

Now it’s 2019, those humanoid robots don’t seem just as far away, particularly with new developments in technology.

This year, we will undoubtedly see advances in humanoid robots speed up. Incredible things are being done in engineering, artificial intelligence and robotic design, and in the next decade we could very well be seeing these advances walk and talk their ways into our schools, places of work and into our homes.

If you think back on the computers of our youth, when the dizzying heights of technology were a Pac-Man computer game or the dazzling Pong, and compare it to the vast array of amazing digital delights that are available to us today, it’s not hard to imagine where we will be in 2029.

Today in our homes we have smart speakers and virtual assistants in the form of Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, and Cortana – humanoid voices answering our every whim as we bark orders, demand the weather forecast, design playlists and make to-do lists from the sofa.

We have vacuuming robots and bots which do the annoying chores we don’t want to, like clean our windows or cut the grass. We have robots with unique personalities that evolve and adapt the more they hang out with us, telling jokes suited to our personality. Our kids can have robots which answer their non-stop questions, almost replacing parents.

We even have a robot that is trying to replace our dog. CHiP can to do tricks, play fetch and sit, apparently show affection, nuzzle you with its nose, and be your new best friend.

And as if that’s not bad enough, in Japan they have developed a humanoid newsreader called Kodomoroid, to replace reporters like me.

Last year a robot baby – created by a special effects company for an exhibition at the London Science Museum – made it’s squirming, burping, smiling way onto our television screens. And, bar the metal prongs on its back, it was terrifyingly lifelike.

In the age of Sophia, the world’s first robot citizen – given citizenship of Saudi Arabia in 2017 – it is certainly not a stretch of the imagination that we might some day soon have manufacturing factories packing full of humanoid robots willing to take care of our menial tasks, help in schools or even be sent to fight wars where there is a concern for human casualties. And it is also not beyond the realms of possibility that a huge technical company is currently and actively planning on ways to make money from such ventures.

The leaps and bounds made in the field of Artificial Intelligence certainly point towards a future where machines not only do all the heavy lifting, but also the heavy thinking in this modern world.

However, as we are only human and it’s naturally imprinted on our DNA, there is always the fear there that the scenes played out in I,Robot or the Terminator when machines try to take over the world and destroy humanity could possibly come to life in terrifying detail in real time and in our lifetime.

Before any such scenario occurs and humans allow humanoids into their private realms a concrete, bomb-proof and cyber attack mega trust must be forged. Artificial Intelligence is not something to be played with. Our bank accounts, our computers systems, our very way of digital life is constantly threatened by hackers. It is terrifying to think what those with malicious intent could do if given half a chance to take control of Artificial Intelligence. We must be careful.

If not Will Smith will indeed be busy saving the world yet again.