Luis Mollinedo interview on the present and future of robotics

Luis Mollinedo Herrera is a project engineer- GMV Aerospace and Defense. Specializing in robotics and avionics, he is one of the engineers responsible for developing the FOXIRIS robot, an autonomous robot designed to work on gas and oil sites around the world. He has also taken part in important projects at home and abroad and participated in several articles on robotics and automation. Luis Mollinedo Herrera is without any doubt one of the key players in Spain’s robotics sector.

foxiris–  What are the main projects you have taken part in?
I’ve been lucky enough to have worked on several important projects throughout my career.
Without doubt one of the most important, and one I remember with particular fondness, is the platform-art© project (Advanced Robotic Testbed for Orbital and Planetary Systems and Operations Testing). This was the very first GMV project I worked on as an intern back in 2007. This project has undoubtedly been one of the most headline-grabbing and far-reaching of all.
Another major project I was lucky enough to work on was ESA’s Rover Autonomy Test-Bed (RAT) project. RAT helped to boost our across-the-board maturity, giving us the chance to learn and improve in many different disciplines.
But for me personally the most important project of all has been FOXIRIS. This was a particular commitment of mine from the word go. I was sure right from the start that we in GMV had all the technical and human capacities for carrying through projects of this type.
FOXIRIS is a project in which I’ve had the chance to participate together with a great team of colleagues, to all of whom I’m very grateful for their dedication. The sense of pulling off this great challenge and all the new work outlets being opened up by this project mean that all this ongoing effort has been well worthwhile. FOXIRIS, as of today, is allowing us to learn and implement technologies and techniques we would otherwise never have mastered.
Within the FOXIRIS project I have also had the chance to be the technical leader, and this is a source of particular satisfaction. I hope to hold onto this position in upcoming projects based on FOXIRIS-developed technology.

– What major advances do you expect in the robotics world in the near future?
Here I firmly wear my technician’s hat and I tend to be very critical of the movie-inspired visions of robots capable of thinking and feeling like humans. Artificial Intelligence is based on mathematical functions; furthermore we are not at present (and may never be) capable of understanding the complete workings of the human mind; any thoughts of replicating it are a mere pipedream with our current capabilities. I believe that many more years of research will have to be put in before we reach any sort of watershed moment in artificial intelligence.
As for robotics advances, it should be made perfectly clear that robotics is now part and parcel of our daily lives: all sorts of equipment and gadgets ranging from cell phones to washing machines are now using some form of robotics. But if we speak of robotics in the form that most people have in mind, I would argue that the mostly likely advance in the future will be a progressive cheapening of its cost: this will allow robotics to be brought into many other areas of our daily lives.
I expect robotics to spill beyond the current applications of the military, space, industrial and academic sectors and break into our day-to-day lives, making our routine tasks much easier.

– Movies like ”Automata” raise the question of whether a robot could be capable of modifying itself. What do you think about this possibility?
I wouldn’t like to kid anyone: with today’s technology self-modifying robots are impossible. Robotics, after all, boils down to a series of rules that define the robot’s logical behavior.
That said: if other computing paradigms are developed in the future, based on other techniques and theories, then it cannot be completely ruled out; as of today, however, it’s impossible. Bear in mind that, by definition, a robot can never transgress the limits imposed by its programmer.

– Robots have recently been developed that are said to feel emotions. Do you think we are close to living alongside robots that can feel emotions like humans?
The answer is much the same as the one to the previous question about self-modifying robots. This is impossible today.
These robots you are talking about, ostensibly capable of expressing feelings, in fact merely observe their interlocutors, analyzing their facial gestures and bodily movements in search of known and established patterns, which they then use and analyze as cues to act accordingly. But in no way are they expressing real feelings; this is still technically impossible. The current paradigm just doesn’t allow it.

– What do you think about the controversial question of robots carrying out jobs that were traditionally performed by humans, thus throwing them out of work?
This is a very serious problem. A thoroughgoing analysis, however, shows that this human-machine dichotomy has in fact existed since the industrial revolution.
The trouble is that our population has now increased; medical advances enable us to live longer. This trend is now on a collision course with technological advances in the robotics world and it’s hard to see how to head off the crunch.
There are two well-defined stances here. One camp argues that robots are going to generate as many jobs as they destroy, often of a much more specialized type. The opposite camp claims that jobs generated will never offset jobs destroyed.
I personally believe that robotics today should concentrate on performing tasks that humankind cannot or should not do. I’m referring here to robots like FOXIRIS, designed to work in explosion-risk zones on oil and gas rigs, robots working in high-radiation zones in the nuclear sector or even in space. These robots can avoid many life-threatening situations. I believe this is the way to go for robotics in the working world over coming years.

– There is no doubt that we are still light years behind the robotics situation of countries like Japan. Neither can it be denied, however, that robotics in Spain is currently on a high. How would you rate Spain’s robotics sector on a worldwide level?
Japan’s prowess is partly just newspaper hype. In fact Japan is not as robotically advanced as is commonly thought. It is just more specialized in particular robotics fields, such as home entertainment or people care, due to its grave demographic problem.
Look at the ARGOS Challenge itself. The Japanese team finished behind the European teams, stymied by problems that we in Europe have already tackled and solved.
As for robotics in Spain, obviously we aren’t world leaders yet, although it does rather depend on which industrial sector we are talking about. In the case of industrial robotic arms, for example, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland are world leaders, whereas in the case of mobile robots the US is currently calling the tune. The world robotics picture is quite patchy.
Speaking specifically of mobile robotics, Japan has a very marginal market, lagging behind Spain in this case.
In Spain we are currently at a turning point. Given the right conditions we could now achieve a very good level of robotics applications and research.

– Lastly, let’s dream a little. What would be the robot you would most like to invent?
I hardly know how to answer …
A project I’d love to carry out would be a robotic application to fight against desertification. An idea I’ve always had in mind is to create a fleet of aerial and ground robots to fight against this grave problem, especially in areas of southern Europe like Almeria (where I come from). I’ve also long wanted to take part in an underwater robotics project. The many challenges posed by this particular environment are fascinating.
As you can see I have, on one side, a concern for the environment and, on the other, a technical interest in robotics. I’d love to be able to blend these two interests and create robots capable of working for the common good of humankind.

Author: Luis Mollinedo, project engineer at GMV Aerospace and Defense

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Las opiniones vertidas por el autor son enteramente suyas y no siempre representan la opinión de GMV
The author’s views are entirely his own and may not reflect the views of GMV
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    One thought on “Luis Mollinedo interview on the present and future of robotics

    1. Jesus

      I completely agree with the author, concerning the current robotics industry in Spain. There are tonnes of projects (from educational to manufacturing), involving a variety of universities and centers of research, where there are lot of good stuff and researchers working hard everyday to carry out the challenge. The problem, personally think, is that working on robotics is currently undervalued even within universities and companies, where short-term contracts are more preferable than long-term (research through) research-robotics projects.

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