Posts Tagged robotics

The Upside of People Robert Hickson Jun 08

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There may be some schadenfreude going around following the recent DARPA rescue robot challenge


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But some, at least, will rise again.

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There is still a lot of hand wringing about the impact that robots, algorithms, and artificial intelligence may have on the human workforce. I’ve noted this previously. National Public Radio in the US has put together a nifty website to illustrate what jobs may become automated, based on the analysis of Frey & Osborne [Pdf]. It is important to note though that Frey & Osborne’s conclusions are derived from a model and don’t represent manifest destiny. There have been many commentaries based on Frey & Osborne’s results, but not many alternate models or assumptions tested.

Davenport & Kirby, writing in the Harvard Business Review,  take a rather more upbeat view of how humans may fare in the future. While noting that machines continue to move along the spectrum of taking over dirty, dangerous, dull and decision-making jobs, they suggest machines/algorithms should best be viewed from the perspective of how they can best augment human skills rather than as replacements for people altogether. In good HBR-speak they focus on strategies to avoid being made redundant – stepping up, aside, in, narrowly, or forward. All good for the readers of the HBR, but probably not so helpful for others facing lay-offs or in minimum wage jobs.

The point is valid though that employers, employees, and policy makers all need to be thinking harder about the types of meaningful work people will have in the near future. Rather than focussing on what jobs will machines take over, we should be thinking more about what are the meaningful and productive activities that are required to support happy, healthy, cohesive and creative communities.

What about New Zealand?

Overall, New Zealand’s labor productivity is low compared to the rest of the OECD, and we are on a downward trend. Just replacing farmers and low value manufacturing with robots won’t have much impact on productivity. We still need to figure out what we can produce or provide that others elsewhere are willing to pay lots of good money for, and be able to build the firms that can deliver these.

Davenport & Kirby point out that:

… the emphasis has to be on the upside of people. They will always be the source of next-generation ideas and the element of operations that is hardest for competitors to replicate.

So rather than, al la The Graduate, one word of advice about the future being “robotics” (or AI, drones, 3D printing, apps, etc), it has and probably always will be about big ideas, addressing unmet needs, and building better mouse traps.


Clairvoyant vehicles, but what about us? Robert Hickson Oct 10

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Some of you may recall “The Hoff” and his smart car KITT in Knight Rider. With the advent of Google’s autonomous cars, parallels between them and KITT have be drawn.



But apart from self-driving ability, there’s not a lot of similarity (and the Trans Am is way sexier than a self-driving Prius). Now though, Volvo are promoting a much smarter vehicle (with human driver). It will, they claim, have predictive collision capabilities – assessing potential accident situations and taking (hopefully) appropriate avoidance actions. On the street, maybe in 5 to 10 years.

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A great advance, particularly if it reduces tragedies like this. Though there will still be plenty of dumb vehicles and inattentive drivers on the road for a long time to come.

In NZ the number of trucks involved in fatal accidents has been declining for many years (though less so recently), and two thirds of those accidents are not the truck drivers fault. But reducing further vehicle-related deaths and injuries would be

Fatal crashes involving trucks in New Zealand. Source: Ministry of Transport

Fatal crashes involving trucks in New Zealand. Source: Ministry of Transport


In addition to enhancing public safety, there will be a strong economic factor for reducing accidents. A study calculated that the total cost to society (including quality of life assessments) of motor vehicle crashes in the US in 2010 was US$277 billion [pdf]. New Zealand’s Ministry of Transport calculated the social cost of such accidents here were, in 2012, $3.29 billion.

As with the autonomous cars already available, I expect a lot of driving in simulated and real environments will be needed to get the predictive capability up to a reasonable level of accuracy. And I wonder if the software will need to be re-calibrated for different countries (with different cultures and habits) and in different environments. The system will probably need to “know” if it is in an urban or rural setting (different risks and types of behaviours), what the weather is, time of day (late at night on a weekend when the pubs are closing will result in lots of people out and about exhibiting very unpredictable behaviours).

Some big liabilities for the vehicle owner and manufacturer too if the system fails to predict an accident and someone gets injured. But discussions are underway to develop regulations for robotic devices that both protect humans, as well as enable innovation.

I imagine such a vehicle would have a nervous breakdown and refuse to drive in Wellington with its roaming hoards of pedestrians. Which illustrates that it’s not just a vehicle issue, but behavioural and urban design factors also need to addressed.

Cities are likely to be increasingly “smart“, which will hopefully help reduce accidents. And apps for smart phones are also under development to monitor the safety of your environment. But even now better planning and design of towns and cities doesn’t need to involve such sophisticated technologies.

It’s becoming an increasingly predictive world, which causes me some uneasiness. Some US cities are already attempting to predict crime, but not without criticism. Perhaps it’s time to start having more open discussions about what is and isn’t acceptable to predict in our societies, and the consequences and limitations of such technologies..


Brief updates to the future Robert Hickson Sep 18

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A few quick updates to previous posts.

Following on from Unthinking Machines – Noah Goodman makes a very good point about reconfiguring the Turing Test - break it up into a set of more meaningful tests that actually are linked to thinking, rather than attempting to fool a panel of judges.

AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs - Technology Review point to robots starting to share the factory floor with humans. Rather than robot overlords, they may be more collegial, and result in greater productivity and efficiency in manufacturing. The article notes the work of the Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. One student there recently showed that, for a very simple collaborative task, humans preferred the robot to be the boss because that was more efficient.

I’d not extrapolate this out to a general theory, but it does point to some interesting future human – machine interactions.

The automotive sector is a good place to keep an eye on for glimpses of how robotics, “artificial intelligence”, automation (semi-automation coming to a US dealership soon, maybe), battery technologies may develop. Not to mention aspects of future urban design, and quicker ways for developing new transportation projects.


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.




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