IN the Scotland of the future we will be looked after in our old age by robot assistants, give up on car ownership, live single lives in which our chatbots and home assistants are our most constant companions, and struggle to remember what privacy once felt like. That is the vision that was revealed when we talked to some of the world's top scientists and futurologists who will be speaking at the Edinburgh International Science Festival next month.


Big matron is watching you

In a seemingly ordinary cul-de-sac in a suburban area of Hatfield, Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn has created what she calls a robot house. Inside, this smart home is dotted with sensors and populated by a number of different robots to which the sensors feed information about the movements of people in the house. Her aim, ultimately, is to develop the kind of robot companion which could look after a person in old age, illness, or disability. With an ageing population and increasing strain on our health and care system, she sees it as part of a solution to providing care and helping people to stay independent at home.

In five to ten years’ time, she says, we might start to see such robot carers in people’s homes, helping to fetch things, reminding people to eat or take their medication, observing if there is some health-related cause for alarm. Dautenhahn, who is talking at an event at the festival titled Your Robot Roommate, is quick to emphasise that robot companions are not designed to replace human contact. “A robot,” she says, “cannot replace human contact as far as I’m concerned.”

Currently, she observes, an elderly person who needs some assistance might have a carer coming in for only ten minutes twice a day. Yet, that elderly person may need to be watched for far more of that time. “What you really want is a system that can 24/7 watch over people and learn about their behaviours, and might be able to track, for instance, if they seem to be eating less, and identify a medical problem earlier.” Dautenhahn envisions that this could free up human carers so that in the twenty minutes they are there, they are providing meaningful human contact.

“In an ideal world,” she says, “you’d have a human coming to an older person’s house for six hours a day, sitting and chatting with them, but that’s unfortunately not how reality is. I would rather have a human being come in once a day for twenty minutes and just talk to the person, and a robot deal with all of the other issues.” However, Dautenhahn does confess that one of her fears is that care providers could decide at some point they want to stop using humans all together and get only robots to do the work.

Meanwhile such robots and smart homes would come with a myriad of ethical issues, particularly around privacy and security, since these are systems that would essentially be observing almost everything a person does. However, she is keen to reassure those with wilder worries about robots getting out of control, or replacing people and making them redundant. “Because of films like Terminator and AI, people often see robots as having some desire or intention to kill people and to take over the world. This research is really about providing tools to help people, to assist them.”


From car owning to car sharing

We are starting to learn a lot about the coming of driverless car, but in the future the biggest change in transportation is going to be that fewer of us will be owning cars. This doesn’t mean that we will no longer be travelling in them, but that smartphone connectivity will fuel the growth of sophisticated use of car clubs, cab services like Uber and car-pooling systems. Already car ownership is stagnating and fewer younger people, from 17 to 20, are learning to drive. According to Dr Caitlin Cottrill of the University of Aberdeen, who will be talking at a science festival event on Intelligent Transport, we are changing from a system “focussed on vehicle ownership” to one that revolves around “mobility as a service”.

“People are becoming less bothered about owning the car – particularly given the financial burdens and maintenance responsibilities that come with it.” In the future, she says, we are likely to be using social media to “facilitate collaborative rides and next generation carpooling”. People, increasingly, will be thinking, “I need to get from activity to activity, but I don’t need to own a car.”

Driverless cars have a place in this connected travel future. But, observes Cottrill, there are many issues still to be resolved before driverless cars hit our roads. “The technology is certainly moving in leaps and bounds, but the question is are our policies and regulations keeping up with it. Because when you have autonomous vehicles on the roads, particularly if they’re in mixed traffic, then you’ve got questions – if there is a crash, who’s liable for it? Is it the person who programmed the vehicle?”

Also part of this future will be our attempts to reduce emissions and energy consumption, so expect increased use of electric cars and a growth in the use of that big of old school technology, the bike.



Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the web, recently published a letter saying that one of his big concerns about the internet is that “we’ve lost control of our personal data”. This crisis in data privacy is a subject Ken McBain of global technology company Viavi Solutions, will be tackling when he presents a talk at the festival titled Your Phenomenal Phone And What It Says About Your Privacy.

Our phones are constantly giving away data about our private lives. “If someone said to people 30 years ago that almost everyone would be walking around with a device that meant a company and government could locate you to within 100 metres, people back then would think it was a government mandate in a police state,” says McBain.

Privacy is something, says McBain, we have surrendered “because it's convenient to be contactable and have access to apps and the internet wherever we go”. We do it because, he says, most of us really want everything to be easy for us. “To have a convenient map on our phone we turn on location services that mean our location is known to Google or Apple. We don't want to pay for a personal e-mail account so we accept the deal that our e-mails are scanned and data about us taken from them. We want friends to see the things we have done so we give Facebook an unbelievable view into our private lives.”

With the development of driverless cars and ever smarter homes, it is likely that more and more of our lives will be stored somewhere as data. In the future, it’s possible that the only place we will be able to find privacy is off grid.

Nevertheless, right now, concerns over privacy seem to be deterring few of us. As McBain observes: “The past 20 years has shown our desire for tangible services, games and information for free, plus our desire for convenience wins out over concerns we might have about intangible issues like privacy. I don't see our human desire for easy stuff for free changing much soon.”


All the single people

Assuming that we follow current trends, in the future more and more of us are likely to be single, and fewer of us will have children. Dr Qazi Raman of King’s College, London, who will be talking at the event, The Conscious Uncoupling, observes that it’s likely that by the time the current twentysomethings are in their forties, more of them than ever before will never have been married.

Meanwhile, online dating is only likely to grow, and develop new bells and whistles, so that by 2040, according to a report commissioned by eHarmony, people will be making use of full sensory virtual reality and behaviour-based matching to enhance the experience. Rahman, observes that already online dating has “democratised romance and love”, adding: “People who have relatively rare sexual preferences, or those who live rurally, suddenly can find dates.”


Smarter houses and butler bots

The smart home has already arrived, but current home assistants are only able to perform a limited range of tasks, such as control appliances or put a note in a diary. Soon, however, they will be able to do much more. According to Ondrej Dusek of Heriot-Watt University, a speaker at the event, Your Robot Roommate, the future lies in creating systems that can respond to almost anything we ask. As Dusek puts it: “What many people are working on now is enabling these assistants to talk to you about any topic in the same way as you would talk to a person.” His own group at Heriot-Watt is currently developing a social chat robot.

For Dusek the future of the intelligent home assistant lies in two things, “more natural, personalised, social dialogue and more real-world skills, like shopping and automation”, as well as the much bigger goal of “endowing these machines with the ability to learn new skills from humans, without the need for programming those skills”.


Games turn serious

Games in the future won’t just be for fun and entertainment – they will also help us create good health routines, understand our bodies and manage our pain. Professor Pam Kato of the Serious Games Institute at the University of Coventry is a creator of such games, one of her first being Re-Mission, in which players enter the human body as microscopic robots to fight cancer at the cellular level. “With my game for people living with cancer it had an impact on people taking more of their chemotherapy which is related to living longer. Games can be pretty powerful tools.”

One of the big potential areas in which gaming might be used in health, says Kato who is presenting an event at the festival called Games: Just What The Doctor Ordered, is through VR. Given that even ordinary games have already been proven to provide distraction from pain, and thereby reduce it, VR with its immersive quality has still greater potential. Perhaps, Kato theorises, in the hospitals of the future, people may be distracted from their immediate environments by a VR headset, and thrown into a more pleasant virtual environment which causes them less stress, and thereby enables them to get better faster.

The Edinburgh International Science Festival is from April 1-16