Eight signs of the robot incursion
Tue 10 Nov 2015
It’s the kind of scenario presented in science fiction TV, films and books: What if one day, the world was ruled by robots?
Today, that scenario is taking steps closer to reality. A recent report has seen Toyota invest $3 billion in a new research and development unit to investigate the feasibility of robots becoming a key technology of the future. The money is to be invested over a five-year period to establish the Toyota Research Institute which will be situated near Stanford University in Silicon Valley.
The news comes in the wake of Toyota’s Partner Robot programme which is to develop automated help in fields such as housework and help for the elderly. The endgame of this programme is to produce robots that are designed to include “kindness” and “intelligence”.
This sets up new possibilities for the future – but in fact, other recent technological innovations have also indicated that one day robots could take over the jobs that human beings do. But what are the implications of this, both good and bad? Let’s take a look at some key employment areas and see if robots really can rule the roost.
Sometimes in the shops, the service can be mixed to say the least. On a good day, you’ll get high quality service packed with knowledge, good humour and reliability. On a bad day, the surly shop assistant may be too busy chewing on gum and playing with his or her mobile phone to provide good customer service.
But already, there have been inroads into ensuring reliable customer service in shops. OSHbot is a pilot project designed by Fellow Robots and functions as a retail assistant in a shop in San Jose, California. The robot will still work alongside human employees and will be there to help entering customers.
Michael Osborne and Carl Benedikt Frey from Oxford University have predicted that in the future, there will be a 92% chance that there will be computerised sales people. Robots can offer efficient service and make mundane tasks a lot easier to handle. But a question to ask is if a robot can sufficiently deal with an unprecedented crisis – while it can be programmed to handle tasks such as product knowledge and payment, can it handle potential issues such as accidents, complaints and shop-lifting?
There is a Japanese hotel that’s known as “The Weird Hotel”. The Henn na hotel is part of an amusement park and is unique for featuring robotic staff.
You’ll be guaranteed a different kind of welcome at the Henn na – by a robotic dinosaur on reception! The hotel, in south western Japan, also includes a female humanoid robot and a concierge robot which can provide event and breakfast information.
The futuristic plans are designed to increase efficiency – with that in mind, it’s a slightly different hotel experience than your average stay. For one thing, it’s down to the guests to check in themselves (they type the information about personal details, length of stay etc). Another aspect is that instead of keys, facial recognition technology is used – which is a result of the robots not quite able to handle keys just yet. Neither can robots make beds or provide other concierge functions such as personal opinions on where to go. And of course, robot service may just lack that personal touch.
One of the most common employment sectors is that of the factory, and this is where the results stand out. Changying Precision Technology in China has seen notable developments in its factory – originally, there were 650 employees: today there are only 60 with the factory manned by 90% of robots. The robots are programmed to produce parts for mobile phones, for example – and the compiled statistics prove that robotic factory work has been a shrewd move.
The increase in robotics has seen an increase in production “per person” by 162.5% from 8000 to 21,000 pieces. There has also been a decrease in issues with the products – the defect rate for products used to be 25% but this figure has been drastically reduced to only 5%.
Introducing robotics into the world of surgery can offer a mixed diagnosis. On the one hand, a robot can prove vital in finding potential cures for diseases and also offering advice on treatments for diseases.
This was the case with IBM AI framework Watson, which was used with 12 American hospitals to provide advice on the best treatment solutions for a range of cancers. Robots were also used at the Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust to assist doctors with keyhole kidney surgery.
However, robot surgery can provide a risk element. Research from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Rush University Medical Centre and the University of Illinois found that in the last 10 years, machine-based surgeries had been connected with at least 144 deaths and 1391 injuries. Furthermore, the report found that there had been 8061 incidents of the device malfunctioning in some way.
Home help and caring
One sector that the Toyota Partner Robot programme plans to cater for is that of home help/caring. The robots will look to carry out tasks such as housework and assisting with movement for the elderly and the infirm.
It’s a worthy move – although to take the example of looking after the elderly, there are a number of issues. Caring requires that personal touch: a kindly word, a bit of reminiscing or comfort. Perhaps one day a robot can offer that level of compassionate service that humans can provide. And it’s also worth asking whether the elderly of today can get on board with such a radical concept as robot help.
Recently, there have been inroads all over the world to bring automated taxis to the public. In Kanagawa (south of Tokyo), a robot taxi service has been trialled. Robot Taxi Inc can help around 50 residents with the aim of transporting people from their homes to local shops and places where public transport isn’t so accessible. However, there will be a human on hand to assist in case anything goes wrong. It’s a trial project and if successful, could extend to more towns and cities to get tourists around and about.
A common aspect of the robotic vehicle is to use technology to detect and react to other traffic and to control speed and braking. Wepod is a Netherlands-based service that ferries passengers between towns via a vehicle that runs at a top speed of 25 mph. The concept uses devices such as radar, GPS and laser sensors. A similar sort of idea has taken place in the UK. In Milton Keynes, Electric LUTZ Pathfinder Pods have been trialled in pedestrian areas as another new means of public transport.
Now this is an intriguing one. No swearing, shouting or scandals! That’s what you get with the RoboCup World Championships which are held in the Chinese city of Hefei.
Knee-high robot footballers have been used at the University of Hertfordshire. These pre-programmed robots can not only react to spot colour, they can also learn by informing the trainers what they see as they play. However, they’re not as fast paced as our passionate human footballers and they’re also prone to falling over (whether or not they fall as much as human footballers is a matter of opinion!).
But as time progresses, so the level of sophistication of the RoboCup Championships grows. And it’s even been planned with the aim of one day pitting robot players against the real McCoy. Could we be seeing a live tournament by 2050? Watch this space…