Last month we were fortunate enough to exhibit at RAS in Challenging Environments Expo16 and the Codex London Innovation Summit. Here, we share our reflections on day two of the events…
The main thing that we learnt is that you should always travel by train, particularly where the round trip totals a whopping 14 hours with a colleague, in an Audi A3 crammed with every piece of marketing collateral the company owns (Zeus stand and all), and equipped with only a 500ml bottle of Waitrose orange juice to see you both through. We also learnt that travelling 6 miles in 7.30am central London traffic is equal to travelling through the nine rings of hell of Dante’s Inferno and should not be undertaken lightly.
All jesting about hellish commutes aside, we found more of what we already knew; robots and autonomous systems are changing the world as we know it. By now, we’re all pig-sick of being told about how the latest tech is going to revolutionise our everyday lives. In many ways we’ve become desensitised to how much technology dominates everything we do. It’s part of the mundane hum-drum of our daily routines. For most people it is normal to wake up, swipe away our alarms on our smartphones (or, if you’re me, groggily aim in the general direction of the snooze button) before proceeding to check social media, and then spend more hours looking at screens in one day than we do sleeping. Nonetheless, hearing about the tech being used and prototyped in some of the world’s most prestigious companies makes it difficult not to buy into the hype about what’s coming. There’s some truly mind-blowing stuff waiting patiently behind the doors of university labs and in clandestine research centres across the globe (as well as, dare I say, on our own shop floor).
As an eloquent Dave Coplin (Chief Envisioning Officer of Microsoft) pointed out in his keynote address, we now look back in horror when we see hideous stock images of people holding earlier models of mobile phones circa 1995. Although as adults we scoff nostalgically at such clunky, prehistoric devices, it would be little wonder if today’s generation marvelled at what they were; unwieldy, unsightly things that are as alike to today’s whippersnapper smartphones as frost is from fire. We are constantly adapting to and accepting new technologies, but in doing so we have become much less tolerant of older methods. As Coplin pointed out, it’s unacceptable to expect repeat business if you’re not delivering value or efficiency to customers. We are evolving just as quickly as new technology. So much so, we now experience an irrational rage when we can’t use contactless, even though the days of this fairly new-fangled technology are already under threat following the introduction of Apple and Android Pay. Woe betide any retail outlet archaic enough to make us undertake the onerous task of typing in four digits by hand.
The message was clear that businesses can no longer afford to rest on their laurels or hundred-year-old heritage, particularly when we’re in the midst of a start-up revolution that is so receptive to new ideas. During the chat on ‘Managing Innovation in Corporates’ vigorous nodding came from all quarters “that organisations should fail fast and fail cheap”. Luis Alvarez CEO of Global Services, BT added: “There’s an important distinction to make. We do not encourage failure. We encourage success and support failure.”
Another suggestion was to think less about answers and more about asking the right questions. What are we trying to solve? What problems do we/our customers have? How can we do better? While it’s doubtful that futurists can ever accurately predict the speed, shape and scale of the future, there’s a bigger impetus than ever before to stay ahead of the curve because the lore of business has prophetically told us what happens if we don’t. Think about Blockbuster, Kodak, Woolworths, and Nokia. These monoliths evaporated with the advent of quicker, more accessible solutions such as Netflix, Instagram, and Apple iPhone and iTunes.
Besides the obvious observation that most of these replacements are less time-consuming, what is worrying is that they also cut people out of the equation. There is no interaction at the counter with the assistant over which DVD to rent, or as you pay for your first album in Woolworths, or as you collect your latest holiday snaps. Ironically, I now print my photos in one click from an app that integrates with Instagram. Self-controlled services are flourishing and whatever the reasons behind it, people seemingly want to interact with other people less and less. They want to cut out the middle man, and yet, while I find it sad that we’d prefer to talk to automated systems or in the case of self-scanners, not talk to anyone at all (other than cursing it under your breath), hypocritically I find myself opting for these contactless, humanless alternatives too.
The problems arise when these technologies don’t function adequately enough; when the blasted self-scanner doesn’t recognise that you placed the item in the baggage area over 90 seconds ago, or when the automated payment line isn’t trained to decipher anything other than Queen’s English. It is at these moments that we crave a conversation with good old fashioned people. I was not the only person at the event who had reservations about the fact that we’re slowly eradicating human interaction. Beyond contactless payments, self-checkouts, drone deliveries, even regressing to any artificial substitute for customer service such as online banking or ‘chat online’ – all of these advances are driven by a capitalist agenda to reduce business costs.
As the day drew to a close, panellists also discussed the use of human substitutes. Dave Swan (Technical Director here at Tharsus), Rich Walker of Shadow Hand Robotics, Professor Tony Prescott of Sheffield University and Dr Mirko Kovac of Imperial College London debated the use of companion robots as a viable solution to end “the epidemic of loneliness”. Thankfully, an audience member asked a question I had been rummaging around my brain for on the ethics of using cobots to care for the elderly:
“I agree that there’s an epidemic of loneliness that needs to be improved, but in the future do you think we’ll make it too easy for someone to just get a robot instead of going out into the real world meeting real people? Will we lose part of our humanity?”
Another way of asking this is: can a machine devoid of human emotion ever truly provide ‘care’, or person-centred care as we know it? Robots will never have human intuition, compassion or creativity, but does a lack of feeling and sentience enable us to provide more consistent care without the tangled web of human bias, emotions, or any of the other manmade ‘isms’ that are manifest in the world today? And, as Dave Swan intimated, if people aren’t willing (or are unable) to look after our elderly, then why shouldn’t we use robots as part of a solution, rather than discarding old people into care homes like antiquated machinery?
However, we must remember that algorithms are computationally generated by humans and are therefore intrinsically programmed with human bias. What this means is they’re inevitably just one person’s way of doing something. Take the ‘making a cup of tea’ analogy used at the event; one person’s way of making a cup of tea is different from another’s. Mine is more milk than tea with an astronomical dose of sugar. Yours might be builder’s tea, or god forbid, you might even put the milk in first. So what kind of havoc are we unleashing by letting people program their own subjectivity into machines? Clearly, the idea of playing god, albeit to mechanical life, is one that needs great consideration, and the consequences of doing so are currently being popularised in HBO’s brilliant new series ‘Westworld’.
On being asked if there’s a risk that robots could counterproductively make us more insular, Prof. Tony Prescott made a compelling case:
“I think it’s interesting that people pick on robots when they ask this question when really we could have asked in the last session, are we all going to lose ourselves in virtual reality headsets, which really cuts you off from the world. With a physical robot, the robot is in the world with you. We’ve heard talk on the TV this week about how much time kids are spending interacting with their iPads. Several hours a day is typical…so I think if you give them a robot to interact with you’re getting back to a lifestyle before we had these screens, where they’re interacting with the physical world. So I think yes – it’s not a human – but it’s maybe better than some of the other technology alternatives people are becoming distracted by.”
Rather than being a replacement for human interaction, cobots could become stimulants for human interaction. Speaking of the work being carried out at Sheffield University to create new kinds of human companionship, he continued:
“So one of the things we’ve been doing is using this Japanese robot which looks like a baby seal, and that’s being used in care homes for people with Alzheimer’s. A lot of people have relatives who come in to visit their family every day or over the weekend and they run out of things to talk about, but the robot is there, it creates a talking point and it creates a social bridge between people… Your robot won’t have social anxiety, it can be designed to be extrovert.”
As Dave Swan put it: “They can become enablers. A guide dog is a tool but it enables people who couldn’t previously go out and interact with the world to go out and interact with the world, and why couldn’t a companion robot be exactly the same? Just because I have trouble moving around, if I can get an exoskeleton and can stand up and participate then surely that’s the opposite of social isolation – that’s building social engagement. It’s strange that everyone’s instant reaction to robots is fear and negativity. The enabling abilities of these things will grow. It’s a positive thing. Of course we need to be careful and have controls, but it’s an opportunity.”
Rich Walker sees it more as a framing problem: “If you mention military robots and then ask people if you want them caring for the elderly, funnily enough people will say no. If you talk about the various problems of care and then suggest robots caring for the elderly, people will say ‘What a good idea!’.”
The topic of middle-class jobs being swallowed up by robots and AI in the future was also raised, followed swiftly by the mention of Universal Basic Income as a way to redress the imbalance in society when jobs begin to deplete. Early predictions suggest that creativity will endure and that jobs built on routine will be first to be replaced. The good thing is, for once, something good might come to all of us who were repeatedly told we “don’t have a proper trade” or that with our artsy, creative degrees we would “amount to nothing”.
Travelling back up the M1, my head just as bursting at the seams as the A3, I wonder how long it’ll be before the stresses of the road are alleviated by autonomous vehicles. And, as I wait impatiently in Tipshelf services for my food, I wonder how long it’ll be before the wearied teenager behind the counter is replaced by a cheerier, more efficient mechanical counterpart.
You can watch the debate in all its glory here.