Bot Buddy or Robot Rage?

by Carl Weiss

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Is there a robot in your future? More importantly, what will the ultimate effect on society be once robots start taking over much of what has until now made humans unique? Until recently, robots have for the most part been relegated to factories and the living room rug. But all that is about to change. A number of firms are currently making robots that are designed to work alongside us in warehouses, retail establishments and offices. More importantly, as these droids become more autonomous, will they slowly but surely push their human counterparts out of the picture altogether? Will their growing intelligence become a threat to the human species itself, as a number of scientists believe? Whether human beings embrace these automated assistants as a boon, or people begin to rage against the very machines meant to do their bidding is still too soon to tell. Love them or hate them, join me today as I take a look at the rise of the robots.

Robot Renaissance

Contrary to popular opinion, robots are hardly what one would call a recent invention.  As far back as 350 B.C., robots have been a reality.  That’s when the Greek mathematician Archytas crafted a mechanical pigeon that got its motive power via steam.  The Renaissance saw a number of automata created, including a robotic musical band as well as an automated waitress that would serve drinks.  Leonardo DaVinci himself drew up detailed plans for a mechanized medieval knight.  Although it was never built, other imitators took delight in creating a number of “machines” that were designed to mystify and delight royalty and commoners alike.

The chief difference between these early automata and todays robots was the fact that, with notable exceptions, these robots were only intended to mimic the living creatures around them.  They were never designed to carry out the tasks that these living creatures performed.  It wasn't so much the technology that was lacking, but the ability to program these mechanical beasties.  That all changed in 1801, when Joseph Jacquard built a totally automated loom that was programmed via punched cards.  While this innovation represented the earliest form of software, it was so effective that punched cards were still being used to program computers more than 200 years later.

It wasn’t until the advent of World War II that the digital computer was first created by Alan Turing to help the Allies beat the German Enigma code machine.  Fifteen years after the end of the war, it was also Turing who published the book Computing Machinery and Intelligence, in which he postulated a test designed to determine whether a machine had attained the power of intelligent thought.  It became known as the Turing Test and to date no robot has yet passed the test.

That does not mean that the rise of robot intelligence has not progressed.  Since the 1960’s when the first industrial robots were introduced, automation has continued to make inroads in industry.  Today’s auto factories are 90% robotized.  Amazon warehouses continue to become more automated.  (Amazon has even been lobbying the FAA to let them use drones to deliver packages.)  Yet with the exception of big business, few of us labor cheek to jowl with robots in the workplace.  Sure, you might see a Roomba Robot scurrying across the office floor in search of those ever elusive dust bunnies.  But at this juncture, if you have a secretary or office assistant, he or she is made of flesh and blood. 

Can BeamPro Put the Kibosh on Office Hijinx?

Image courtesy of Suitable Technologies
While teleconferencing has been reducing the need for busy executives to fly the friendly skies, until recently these conferences were relegated to conference rooms and boardrooms.  But an enterprising company called Suitable Technologies recently introduced a 5-foot tall rolling robot called BeamPro that takes teleconferencing to the streets. (Or, at least the hallway.)  Think of BeamPro like a tablet pc on wheels, because that is essentially what it is.  The bot allows busy executives the ability not only to interface with far flung colleagues and employees, but it provides mobility that enables said executives to roam the halls of an office across town or around the world.  Equipped with webcam and speakers, BeamPro is kind of like a corporate nannycam on steroids, since it not only allows the boss to keep watch on his staff, but it also enables he or she to interface with and direct the action of far flung staffers.

While this bot threatens to undermine the “While the boss is away, the staff will play” mentality prevalent at many offices, it is still a far cry from replacing said staff.  Nor does it assist the current staff in performing their duties. (Unless having a full-time robotic office Nazi can be considered helpful to overworked and underpaid employees.)  However, that doesn’t mean that help isn’t on the way.

Baxter and His Buddies

While office automation has come a long way, that doesn’t mean you can order a robotic office assistant that can take a letter.  But there is a robot made by Rethink Robotics named Baxter that could put a new face on your shipping department… literally. 

Image courtesy of Rethink Robotics

Where science fiction has usually characterized robots as replacing their human counterparts, Baxter is actually designed to work alongside them.  If you have ever seen automated factories where robots are kept like caged animals that are too dangerous to be allowed near their flesh and blood coworkers, Baxter was designed from the ground up to be user (and human) friendly. The homepage at sums it up as follows,

“If you walk the floor of your facility and see lightweight parts being handled near people, you’ve likely just found a great job for Baxter.  This smart, collaborative robot is ready to get to work for your company – doing the monotonous tasks that free up your skilled human labor to be exactly that. Baxter is safe to operate next to in production environments, without the need for caging – saving money and valuable floor space.  Baxter deploys quickly and connects seamlessly to other automation – often without third party integration.  With Baxter, no traditional programming is required. Instead, it’s manually trainable by in-house staff, reducing the time and cost of third party programmers.”

Designed with a “Monkey see, monkey do” programming subroutine where employees literally show Baxter how to accomplish a task, this in one easy-to-employ bot.  At a base price of $25,000, he and his one-armed counterpart Sawyer could be just the ticket for etailers and cottage industry production facilities that perform a lot of repetitive tasks involved in everything from packaging and material handling to machine tending and line loading.  Still, with their limited mobility, tinkertoy appendages and industrial demeanor, even these handy droids are unlikely to give your receptionist a run for her money any time soon.

Bring on the Humanoid Androids

What most of us are waiting (or dreading) the arrival of robots that can walk, talk and act a little more like human beings.  DARPA recently completed its Robotics Challenge where teams of human robotics experts competed for millions of dollars in prizes.  Their task was to create ambulatory robots that were required to complete a number of disaster response tasks, including driving a rescue vehicle, walking through rubble, climbing stairs and turning valves.  Twenty three teams from around the world fielded robots and three teams shared $3.5 million in prize money, including South Korea’s Team Kaist and two teams from the US, IHMC Robotics and Tartan Rescue.  

No matinee idols by any stretch of the imagination, while these robots can move like humans, their looks are such that if you weren’t completely incapacitated, the sight of these robotic rescuers would in all likelihood scare most of us to death. 

Aren’t there any cute robots out there?

While most research has gone into giving robots the ability to walk and talk like people, few have given aesthetics much thought.  However, there are a couple of notable exceptions such as motor car manufacturer Honda that has been working diligently on a lively little bipedal droid that while not exactly cute as a button, does have a persona less derivative of an industrial monstrosity. 

Able to walk, talk, run, climb stairs and as President Obama discovered during a trip to Japan, kick a soccer ball, this lively little android has been under development for nearly 20 years.  Unlike the industrial manipulators that most bots come equipped, Asimo’s “hands” have four fingers and a thumb just like you and I.  Looking like a 4’3” astronaut, replete with backpack, this humanoid robot is not currently for sale.  However, the little guy has become something of a robot ambassador, having travelled to and performed in dozens of countries worldwide.

Wouldn’t You Like to See a Pepper Too?

More importantly, while Asimo may be a giant step forward in robot evolution, he is still not something you are likely to introduce to your parents.  That’s where Pepper comes in.  Designed with an emotional engine that has been designed to read everything from body language to voice inflection, this little robot is even cuter than Asimo.  Better still, the little droid has been designed with one specific purpose in mind: to be a companion.  While Pepper can’t climb stairs, it is still able to get around on wheels set into its base.  More importantly, Pepper is for sale, at least in Japan, for around $1.600 + $200/month in service fees.  Created by Softbank and backed by Foxconn Technology Group and Alibaba, when Pepper was put on sale on June 20, 1,000 units were sold in the first minute, forcing Softbank to suspend sales.

Before you reach for your wallet, you also need to understand what Pepper can and can’t do.  While the little droid can hold a conversation, react to your emotions and respond autonomously, he doesn’t cook, clean or vacuum the rugs.  However, that doesn’t mean he can’t earn his keep.  Softbank mobile, one of the prime cellphone operators in Japan, as well as Pepper’s creator, have been employing him in their retail outlets as a greeter.  Last year, another Japanese firm, Nestle Japan “employed” Pepper in its appliance stores in order to sell Nescafe coffee machines.  Said, Nestle Japan’s CEO Kohzoh Takaoka,
"Pepper will be able to explain Nescafe products and services and engage in conversation with consumers.”
Beginning this fall, Softbank and its marketing partners are expected to roll out a special business model of the robot named, “Pepper for Biz.”  The success of Softwank’s initial rollout has also propelled a number of other entrepreneurs into the game.  How long will it be before you can purchase or lease a NannyBot to mind your kids or your elderly parents.  With the government’s increased use of drones and warbots, can it be all that far off before security droids come to a warehouse near you?  And it wouldn't it seem like child’s play to craft robotic lawnmowers that rolls out of a truck under its own power to tend to your lawn.

Let’s face it, once the robotic genie is let out of the bottle, there will be no way to put it back.  This means that robots intended to “assist” us will soon transmogrify into androids that can replace us.  As the units get more sophisticated and autonomous, will it be long before jobs currently being performed by humans are taken over by robots?  Or worse, how long will it be before robots reach a point in understanding deemed a singularity by researchers, at which point they will become self-aware.  A number of notable scientists and industrialists, including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned that once robots achieve parity with humans on an intellectual level, there is a real possibility that they will decide  they no longer require or desire to share the planet with their human counterparts. 

Also, there is a real danger that once people begin to be replaced in the workplace by robots, they could well rise up to picket and boycott the companies that formerly employed them.  I could see protest marches and civil disobedience taking place as people become displaced and dispossessed.   Political and religious leaders will be mobilized to thwart this inhuman form of slavery.  I can see the headlines now, “Al Sharpton takes on AI.”

My point is that robotics and artificial intelligence are going to be the mother of all two-edged swords that our wired world will soon be forced to deal with.  Whether the verdict will ultimately be bot buddies or robot rage is still too early to compute.  But if Terry Gou of Foxconn and Jack Ma of Alibaba are right, robots could soon be as important as the automobile in the coming decades.  That means we’ll all have to deal with the debate regarding robot rights a lot sooner than you think.

Carl Weiss is president of Working the Web to Win, an award-winning digital marketing agency based in Jacksonville, Florida.  You can listen to Carl live every Tuesday at 4 p.m. Eastern on BlogTalkRadio   

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