Posts Tagged robotics

AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs Robert Hickson Aug 12

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The respectable research group Pew Research has, as part of its “Future of the Internet Project”, just released a report on how robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) may affect the future of jobs.

AI is already starting to write well, and the founders of Google think there is a lot more to come. Others are less optimistic that we’ll get super smart AI any time soon, while Elon Musk thinks we should be “super careful” with AI so we don’t end up getting wiped out or enslaved.

Pew Research asked the question:

To what degree will AI and robotics be parts of the ordinary landscape of the general population by 2025? Describe which parts of life will change the most as these tools advance and which parts of life will remain relatively unchanged.

They canvassed nearly 12,000 “experts and members of the interested public”  and got responses from 1,896 . They recognise that this is a self-selected response pool and so the results aren’t likely to be representative.

The “experts” label is somewhat misleading since many aren’t involved in developing robots or AI nor historians of technology or employment. Its better to describe them as workers, analysts and commentators on technologies (largely ICT).

Interestingly, Pew got nearly an even split on whether robots and AI will displace more jobs than they create in 2025.

They characterised the key points from those who believe that there will be plenty of jobs for us carbon units as:

Argument #1: Throughout history, technology has been a job creator—not a job destroyer

Argument #2: Advances in technology create new jobs and industries even as they displace some of the older ones

Argument #3: There are certain jobs that only humans have the capacity to do

Argument #4: The technology will not advance enough in the next decade to substantially impact the job market

Argument #5: Our social, legal, and regulatory structures will minimize the impact on employment

What’s not discussed in much detail is the nature of the “human” jobs that are created. Will they be interesting, fulfilling and reasonably well paid? Or will a more automated society create so much wealth that many won’t need to work?

Those who had a less optimistic view of the future thought that the situation with AI and robots is quite different from previous technological changes, particularly because of the speed of change, and the number of industries affected. They made two main points:

Argument #1: Displacement of workers from automation is already happening—and about to get much worse

Argument #2: The consequences for income inequality will be profound


Pew noted that both groups agreed that  ”The educational system is doing a poor job of preparing the next generation of workers” and that the concept of “work” may change significantly in the coming decade.

Many also agreed that  ”Technology is not destiny … we control the future we will inhabit” Thats a sentiment that’s probably been expressed through every industrial revolution, but doesn’t stop many who lose their jobs or craft from being badly affected.


The report ends by noting some hopeful outcomes from greater automation, though they are vague:

Possibility #1: We will experience less drudgery and more leisure time (we’ve heard that one before)

Possibility #2: It will free us from the industrial age notion of what a “job” is (we’ve heard that one before too)

Possibility #3: We will see a return to uniquely “human” forms of production – by this they mean hand-made, artisanal, small scale production (though would 3-D printing be classed as “hand-made”?)

So, no one really knows how its going to play out. Except a lot of change is coming and we can’t rely on what’s gone before as being a good guide.

The “Bionic Olympics” 2016 Robert Hickson May 15

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The Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research Robotics has announced it will be holding a Cyberathlon in October 2016. (The BBC has a brief synopsis - the Cyberathlon site can bring up security certificate warnings). Its open to those with arm or leg prosthetics, as well as wheel-chair bound athletes and those with exoskeletons. There’s also a brain-computer interface challenge.  Nothing for bionic eyes or cochlear implants though. And don’t expect six million dollar man-type achievements.

Its about promoting novel assistive technologies rather than athletic prowess. Firms & research labs as well as the athletes can win medals. So it’s more like a DARPA grand challenge than a real Olympic event. And presumably no expensive, flash opening ceremony. Nor a rush of large scale stadium and athlete village building.

The initiative highlights the pace of development in bionics. Last week the US Food & Drug Administration approved marketing of the DEKA arm system that translates electrical signals from muscles into movement.

It also illustrates how competitions are increasingly being used to stimulate technological developments.

NZ has a stake in bionics. Rex Bionics, which produces exoskeletons, is based here, but has being listed on a British sharemarket, through an arrangement with Union MedTech.


Robolego Robert Hickson Nov 25

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While Siouxsie is encouraging more gender equality in lego figurines “pussy cat” mums are dragging their kids, kicking and screaming (perhaps), to lego classes in Singapore. As the Economist notes, the latter is potentially an interesting new development in Asia, where parents (and politicians) are keen to foster greater creativity and team work in the next generation of students.

It may help, so long as it doesn’t become another parental must-do. It would be interesting to run a long term randomised study to see if lego playing kids have a greater tendency to “do well” (however you want to define that) than those forced to go to music lessons, or extra science and maths classes. Maybe with the growing use of life tracking devices and applications social scientists in the future will have a rich data source to mine to investigate this.

Lego is already being promoted as forming the basis of the next generation of engineers in the US. Their Mindstorms EV3 programmable robotic series of “toys” are used in some school curricula, and form the basis of national and international school competitions.

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Raspberry pi [used to teach computer programming], and other technologies, are also being increasingly used by schools to engage children and stimulate creativity. Its an increasingly hackable world.

I can foresee a joint venture sometime in the future between Lego and Craig Venter producing Ventos, programmable synthetic cells for your little tykes to play with.

Robotic Friday Robert Hickson Oct 24

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The Atlantic has two articles about robots this week. The first has pictures of Robots at Work and Play, though its more work than play. Robotic camel jockeys anyone? The most intriguing one for me was the mobile fish pen system that “wanders” the ocean gathering data that can help solve water quality and seafloor impact problems.

The others are what you’d probably expect – military, industrial and scientific bots, with a few gimicky bartenders, waiters, and humanoid robots thrown in. But it gives a good quick overview of the diversity emerging.

The second Atlantic article allays fears (perhaps) that robots and automated systems are inherently better than us. Humans, particularly when several are involved, are better at solving some problems. For now at least. Tired of hearing about cloud computing? The article throws out a new meme – crowd computing.

M-bots that will be able to swarm and self-assemble are under development – for potential use in emergency repairs, or perhaps art.

Depending on your level of technological geekiness, one of the coolest or scariest, robots around now is the WildCat. Look at this baby run!

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Can’t wait to get your autonomous car to get away from (or run with) the WildCat? You’ll still have to wait a while if you aren’t rich. Beyond the cost, is the need for the human behind the wheel to still be prepared to over-ride the system. Designers are still figuring out how to ensure the potential driver remains attentive enough to act. And having a big red button on the dashboard to kill the car in an emergency doesn’t strike me as particularly reassuring.

For more sober reading, the International Federation of Robotics have released their 2013 report on trends in robotics. Only modest increases in the numbers of industrial and service robots in service, but the numbers of countries and industries using them are growing. China is anticipated to have a large appetite for robots in the future. India not so much.

Personal robots have much lower growth projections.

Rather than job destroyers, a separate report notes that use of robots and automated systems can increase the numbers of jobs for humans. At least in some industries, such as the automotive sector in Germany. This comes about through increased productivity, and quality improvement.


Collaborobots Robert Hickson Sep 17

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There’s been a debate in the US that robots and other technologies will steal jobs (a recent study suggests 45% of US jobs are at risk from computerisation). Others disagree, pointing out some robots are filling in gaps where its hard to get workers (like farm labourers), or suggesting that these technologies (like the industrial and computer revolutions before them) will create new jobs for carbon-based life forms. That’s now being put to the test with BMW installing robots to work alongside humans on car assembly lines.

These so-called “collaborative robots” are part of a trend resulting from the slimming down robots and  improvements in design, software and artificial intelligence so that robots can safely work alongside people and be more adaptable in the tasks they can perform. Rather than being aggrieved, some of the workers welcome their new work mates because they take on the dull repetitive jobs. As you’d expect, The Economist likes the idea of greater productivity resulting from human-robot collaborations.

Cheaper robots are also making it possible for small firms to invest in robots and improve their productivity.

For New Zealand, forestry and meatworks are obvious places to install robots to improve health and safety. IRL developed  a robot to help cut up lambs a few years ago, but it doesn’t seem to have been widely adopted. Elsewhere more robots are being added to the chain. Scion has found that rural communities can feel threatened if robots start helping in the forestry sector. Adding robots to these sectors also won’t dramatically improve the value we get from these commodity products.

Someone has suggested that Iceland is a great place to build lots of robotic factories – plenty of cheap power, lots of water to cool everything down, stable government, and close to some large markets. Once the Tiwai point smelter closes here there could be lots of cheap electricity to power our own robotic manufacturing empire. Problems for us, though, are that we aren’t close to markets, and robots are being brought into existing industries rather than establishing greenfield sites.

Will it matter if robots pass us by? Yes, because it will mean that we probably still won’t be  producing much of high value, and our productivity will continue to fall behind countries we like to compare ourselves with.


Update 18 Sep: Transpower is deploying robots to help maintain the power grid. Not the same as collaborative robots, but we’re on the path. Farming systems may be next.

Random futures Robert Hickson Jun 30

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Here’s a short collection of what, to me, are interesting developments.

Will good design turn more people on to eating insects? A finalist for an international design competition has developed a bench top grasshopper rearing unit. This is to encourage more (Westerners) to take seriously a UN plea to eat more insects [Pdf].


Unlikely, I think, for sensitive Western palates. While crunching on chitin has more appeal than vat grown meat, there are other alternatives also under development.  Vertical farms, and aquaponics (combining fish farming and hydroponics into one system), for example. There are less high-techy options as well.


Smart phones are becoming smarter. SRI is working on what it calls “cognitive indexing” to develop better artificial intelligence to predict what you want to ask by taking account of a range of information.


You can also start making your house “smarter”, with commercial kits becoming available to connect bits of your house up with each other. Welcome to the brave new world of the Internet of Things. Cisco is going large on this. But there are a range of challenges to work through, particularly getting different devices to communicate with each other.


If you are interested in hearing more about what Rodney Brooks has to say about robots (as I mentioned in an earlier post) then this TED video is good.


Finally, I got a mention in the Herald on Sunday (and a new name at the end) in a piece about Wills & Kate & Baby.



Robots and the elderly Robert Hickson Jun 26

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There is much optimism in some quarters that health-care robots and other advanced technologies will help meet the anticipated demand for more health-care workers as the proportion of old folks increases [NZ data here].

Rodney Brooks of  Rethink Robotics talks about this with the BBC, along with the need to think about designing robots from the users point of view rather than the engineer’s.




[As an aside he also makes the good point that current industrial robots will not meet the needs of small manufacturers, who require cheaper, safer and more versatile robots - like Baxter]

However, Rebecca Mead in an enlightening and compassionate article in the New Yorker, describes a more human-centred approach in some US dementia-care units. These have reduced the reliance on medication and rigid hospital rules. They are getting some wonderful and more dignified results with patients, as well as reducing the stress and frustrations of nursing staff and doctors. Similar to Rodney Brooks’ approach, they have considered care from the patients perspective. This has involved redesigning the facilities, as well as retraining staff. It can also reduce costs (or at least not blow them out) because of the lower use of medicines, so seems likely to be able to applicable more widely.

This illustrates that while new technologies can help, we shouldn’t just jump straight to technological solutions for pressing needs. Robots may play an important role in aged care in the future, but they’ll need to be much more than replacement manual labourers. If the type of care Mead describes is the objective, then robots will also need to be great communicators and able to modify their behaviour for different individuals and situations. That will be a big challenge, but artificial intelligence seems to be moving slowly in that direction.




A 3D printed microbattery Robert Hickson Jun 23

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The research uses of 3D printing are rapidly diversifying. The latest application is a lithium ion microbattery (subscription to Advanced Materials required to read full article). Unlike existing thin film batteries this printed microbattery is reported to have a similar performance to commercial batteries. Potential applications are for micro-robots and implantable medical devices.

The critical issues for these batteries will be their ability to hold enough charge to make them feasible for their intended uses, and to be able to be easily produced in large quantities.

Few will probably have concerns about uses in medical devices, but with current disquiet over electronic surveillance, swarms of autonomous micro-robots (government or privately controlled) are sure to meet resistance.

Pilots also optional? Robert Hickson Apr 29

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In my last post I noted the shift to increasing automation on the roads. We are also seeing this in the air. In the US legislative and budgetary initiatives are set to encourage greater use of unmanned aerial vehicles (aka Drones) in domestic airspace. Some fliers are in a tailspin about the dangers this poses to regular aircraft, because of the absence of collision avoidance systems in most planes and drones.

True, drones usually have a pilot controlling them at a distance, so they are not the same as self-driving cars. But it’s possible that pilot-less passenger aircraft aren’t far off (the belief that current jets can essentially fly themselves is a myth).

A range of organisations have already applied to fly drones in US airspace – the Air Force, Homeland, Security, Universities, and police departments. The latter make some particularly nervous because of the fear of invasion of privacy (rather than having weapon laden drones flying over a city). That’s a distraction from the main issue of the increasing capabilities of sensor systems generally and how they are used (it doesn’t really matter if they are in a small drone or a larger, manned aircraft). With drones I’d be more worried about the potential for accidents in a crowded environment.

However, two can play at the spy game, as Syrian protestors illustrated by keeping an eye on security forces with a camera attached to a model plane. I expect we’ll see more of this – there is already an active DIY drone culture.

New Zealand could potentially use drones for maritime surveillance. A Palmerston North company, Skycam UAV NZ, has developed drones for aerial surveillance.

Second hand military robots are also likely to be donated to police departments in the US — for surveillance and bomb disposal work (some police already buy them). With their widespread adoption by defence forces, I expect military robot manufacturers will look for new markets in police and domestic security applications.

DARPA is also sweetening the pot. In early April they announced a Grand Challenge to develop search and rescue robots. A key initiative they are looking for are systems of robots that can do a range of tasks and communicate with each other. If this Grand Challenge is as successful as their series of self-driving vehicle challenges, then we’ll see a lot more rapid innovation in the robot world.

I’ll end somewhat tangentially. This video is called ‘Robot readable world’, which is misleading because robots aren’t always involved. However, I found it eerily entrancing to see how computers are identifying objects and navigating streets.

Update 7 May: The American Civil Liberties Union have posted what they call “a nightmare scenario” of how police could slowly increase the use of surveillance drones to a point where they infringe privacy. The scenario relies on some future technological developments, such as face and gait recognition, improved visual analytics and coordination between devices, as well as broadening situations when surveillance can be used. The ACLU calls for regulations to be proactively employed to ensure such intrusive surveillance does not occur.  As I noted above, the privacy issue isn’t just about drones, but more generally about the power of sensor systems and the increasing number of ways they can be deployed (overtly or covertly).

Update 14 May: In Australia, the Victorian police are considering using drones for surveillance and searches. Chris Laidlaw’s Radio NZ Sunday Morning programme on 13 May  had a discussion about drones that is worth listening to.

Upload my brain? Robert Hickson Mar 01


Another self-made man (and it always seems to be men) is throwing money at digitizing the mind. Dmitry Itskov, a young media entrepreneur, has announced he  is recruiting a team of scientists to, within the next decade no less, transplant human consciousness into a robot. After that it will, he hopes, be a short step to downloading minds so we can all live forever. Unimaginatively he calls the project “Avatar”.

As I noted in one of my first postings, digitising the mind is becoming de rigeur for technophile futurists. They happily gloss over the woeful state of our current understanding of how the brain, and mind, work. The conference where Mr Itskov’s announcement was made (and he organised) seems to be the typical gathering of like-minded techno-optimists (with a yogi thrown in for diversity and spiritual credibility) common  for some classes of futurists. A good (futures) event for me is where you have a broad range of different views and outlooks, and where the real nutty issues (seldom technological) are debated.

Mr Itskov would like to team up with DARPA, who also have their own less ambitious Avatar project. They just want to develop a system to enable a soldier to team up with a robot.

If wealthy folk like Dmitry Itskov really want to improve longevity, I hope he is also putting some of his money toward improving health care in Russia and elsewhere too.

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