31 January 2017

Mundane Yet Mesmerizing: The First Wave of the #Robot Revolution #AI #Automation #Robotics #ProductDevelopment

While reading the Sunday paper [AJC 29/01/17], I noticed two articles on robotics being used to automate common tasks. The first concerned a European company called Starship Technologies that is developing rolling robots about the size of a large cooler to make parcel deliveries. (A pilot program is launching in the US and Europe.) The second was an overview of some retail friendly automation ideas on display at the National Retail Federation's Big Show, including a discussion of Softbank Robotics, an Asian conglomerate, that plans to integrate its Pepper humanoid robot into the retail environment with the hope of automating many common customer service inquiries. Taken together, the articles provide a snapshot of where mainstream uses of robots will first occur, namely in automating tasks that tend to be mundane and repetitive --- jobs often thought of as mundane and/or menial.

Getting a delivery is a fairly routine occurrence in many quarters. (For a time, shipping company UPS dubbed itself merely "Brown" --- the distinctive color of its employee uniforms --- because its drivers are so ubiquitous everyone understood the reference.) But getting a delivery made by a robot will wow many onlookers. Of course, as the technology develops robots will take on more complex tasks in our everyday life and we will become more accustomed to their presence. It remains to be seen whether one day we will be taken over by so-called smart robots powered by their own thoughts as predicted in many a sci-fi script (and some academic hypothesis). Are we developing our own robot overlords? I think not.

In spite of the dire warnings sounded by a few prominent scientists and engineers, I would like to think that human ingenuity will always outweigh programmed intelligence. This does not mean that AI robots won't accumulate more "knowledge" than the average human or that an AI program cannot outstrip a human in a specific, even complex arena (as has been demonstrated with chess). I simply believe that the totality of human engineering (our complex body systems and our still evolving brain organ) is more intricate than anything which humans can engineer. The robots will have to prove me wrong. (The possibility that things may go horribly wrong should not prevent our developing AI robots, but it should impart circumspection into said development.) Humans are the most fantastic machines in existence, but certainly man-made robots are cool.

On a personal level, I plan to use automation to an advantage in my home (and my business). I want to employ robots for many tasks from mowing the lawn to vacuuming the floors. The use of robots and/or artificial intelligence systems will allow me to manage the homestead without needing a lot of manpower. Home automation will allow for the creation of a one man run estate. I am fascinated by the promise of AI and what it could mean for reclaiming individual independence. I already use a Smart Assistant (Amazon's Alexa platform) and Smart Appliances. I do not fear the future, as a techie early adopter, I embrace it. And if need be, I will be one of the first to rally against Skynet ...should that day arrive.

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