‘We Are The Robots’ By Kraftwerk
Rise of the Machines – The Future of Robotics and Automation
By Neil Gallant, Managing Director, Neutronic Technologies Ltd
New discoveries raise question after question around whether the research needed to deliver these innovations is viable
So many of the tasks that we now take for granted once had to be done manually.
Washing a load of laundry no longer takes all day; our phone calls are directed to the correct departments by automated recordings; and many of our online orders are now selected and packed by robots.
Developments in this area are accelerating at an incredible rate. But as exciting as these new discoveries may be, they raise question after question around whether the research needed to deliver such innovations is viable, both from an economical and an ethical point of view.
As expert manufacturers of engineering parts that help to keep hundreds of different automated processes up and running, electronic repair specialists Neutronic Technologies are understandably very interested in where the future is going to take us. Is it going to take hundreds, if not thousands, of years for us to reach the kinds of automation that are lodged in the imaginations of sci-fi enthusiasts? Or are we a great deal closer to a machine takeover than we think?
According to the International Federation of Robotics, there are five countries in the developed world that manufacture at least 70 per cent of our entire robotics supply: Germany, the United States, South Korea, China and Japan.
By 2018, the Federation of Robotics predicts that there will be approximately 1.3 million industrial robots working in factories around the world. That’s less than two years away.
The development of automation has received a great deal more attention over the past few years. And undoubtedly what has brought it to people’s attention is the popularisation of the subject following the explosion of science fiction books and movies such as Isaac Asimov’s ‘i, Robot’ and ‘The Bicentennial Man’. And this has continued to emerge throughout the decades and has likely only heightened our curiosity about the world of robots.
Why are we even exploring robotics?
Developing robotics is the next stage in our search for automation. We already have automation integrated into so many aspects of our daily lives, from doors that open due to motion sensors to assembly lines and automobile production, robotics is simply the next step along that path.
I predict that the biggest developments in the automation world will come from the automobile industry – so the likes of self-driving cars that are already being tested – and the internet.
Another area of development within automation is likely to come from the growth of the internet. The concept of the ‘Internet of Things’ has been gaining momentum for some years now, even decades amongst technology companies, but the idea has only recently started to break into a mainstream conversation.
We have already seen glimpses of the future starting to creep into reality, most notably with the introduction of Amazon Dash. Linked to the person’s account and programmed to a certain item, all you have to do is press the button and an order is placed and delivered. Of course, this process is currently only half automated; a button still has to be manually pressed and Amazon shippers still post and deliver the item, but it certainly shows the direction in which we are headed.
But ultimately the Internet of Things can go even further than creating smart homes. The term ‘smart cities’ has been coined that could theoretically include connected traffic lights to control vehicle flow, smart bins that inform the right people when they need to be emptied, to even the monitoring of crops growing in fields.
How do we reach these automation goals?
Ultimately, the end goal of any research into robotics or automation is to emulate the actions of humans. People across the world engage in heated debates about whether machines will ever have the ability to think like people – a subject known as A.I. or Artificial Intelligence which is worthy of its own exploration. Whether that will become a reality in the future we cannot currently tell for sure, but researchers are hard at work across the world trying to inch our way closer.
There are, of course, issues that arise when we try to develop machines to take over certain tasks from humans, most notably to do with quality control and the increased margin for error. Some question whether a machine, that doesn’t necessarily have the capacity to consider extenuating circumstances or raise certain questions or react in a way, would be able to perform these tasks.
Let’s look at self-driving cars for example. So much of driving depends on the person behind the wheel being able to react in seconds to any changes around them. It is, therefore, essential that machines are able to “think” as close to humans as possible. If artificial intelligence and technology alone cannot achieve this, it would be very difficult for such vehicles to become road legal. However, experts in the industry have suggested a very clever solution.
Are there any disadvantages to the research?
As with any major development, there are always going to be people who oppose it, or at the very least point out reasons why we should proceed with caution – and with good reason.
One of the biggest, and indeed most realistic, fears that many people express, is all to do with economics and jobs.
It’s no secret that the UK’s economy, and indeed the world’s economy, has been somewhat shaky over the past few years. This has led to many people showing concern that the development of automated processes, which are able to perform certain tasks with precision and accuracy that surpasses humans and at a much faster speed, will mean that many people’s jobs will become redundant.
Where are we headed?
It is unlikely that we are going to see any robot uprisings anytime soon. But the potential threats that an increase in automation brings to our society should not be underestimated. With the economic state of the world already so fragile, any attempts to research areas that could result in unemployment should be very carefully considered before implementation.
That being said, we are living in exciting times where we are able to witness such developments taking place. So much has already occurred over the past few years that many people may not be aware of. We may not have reached the exciting level of developments as seen in the movies – not yet anyway – but with the amount of ideas and research taking place in the world, the sky really is the limit.
Boston Dynamics Rolls Out Spinning, Jumping “Handle” Robot
By Darren Quick
If you thought the legged robots from Boston Dynamics were scary enough, you might want to click away now. Described by company founder Marc Raibert in a presentation to investors as “nightmare inducing,” the new robot known as “Handle” takes all your fears of a robopocalypse and puts them on wheels.
Designed to handle objects (hence the name), the robot is bipedal like the company’s Atlas robot, but has wheels for feet, which enables it to move more efficiently while shifting its weight to balance and stay upright. The video, which was leaked by venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson on YouTube, shows Handle’s capabilities being put to the test – including the ability jump objects and spin on the spot like an ice skater.
Raibert says the robot can “carry a reasonably heavy load on a small footprint” and is essentially an exercise to test the potential for developing a humanoid robot that has less degrees of freedom than a walking robot, and is therefore cheaper to produce, while still retaining comparable mobility capabilities.
In March of last year, Bloomberg News reported that Alphabet, Google’s parent company, which purchased Boston Dynamics in 2013, was looking to offload the company, with Toyota and Amazon said to be interested. Maybe Handle will pique their interest even more – the jumping ability would definitely lend itself to a Toyota commercial.
Handles can be seen strutting its stuff in the video below (skip to the 3:41 mark).
Dehyping Robotics: Sabine Hauert at TEDx Berlin
Robohub President Sabine Hauert gave an insightful talk at TEDx Berlin about what we try and do here at Robohub: ensuring truthful, fair, balanced robotics information is being shared. As our loyal readers know, we provide a platform for connecting the robotics community to the world and help empower experts to become better communicators for their work. Why is that important? Simply put, we want to dehype how robotics can be portrayed.
In her talk, Sabine explains how robots can be game changers but not in the way you necessarily think.
As an expert in science communication with 10 years of experience, Sabine is often invited to discuss the future of robotics, including in the journal Nature, at the European Parliament, and as a member of the Royal Society’s Working Group on Machine Learning. Sabine’s research at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory focusses in designing swarms that work in large numbers, and at small scales. Before joining the University of Bristol, Sabine engineered swarms of nanoparticles for cancer treatment at MIT, and deployed swarms of flying robots at EPFL.
Politics and Robotics – Are We Going to See a Shift in 2017?
Donald Trump is now president. Since the November 8th election, there has been speculation regarding future plans in the manufacturing sector, retaining jobs in the US, and what exactly that will entail for the robotics industry.
In his interview with the NY Times, President Trump outlined his plans to introduce big tax cuts to tempt companies (such as Apple) to relocate their manufacturing processes to the US. Asked whether he was worried that companies that already manufacture in the US might replace human workers with robots, he answered that he wanted to bring robot manufacturing back to the US, creating more jobs.
On Robohub, Frank Tobe (Editor for The Robot Report) summarized Trump’s thoughts on robotics from the NY Times interview – and outlined why it would be good if the president does what he said he would do regarding robots and robotics.
Others voiced concerns that Trump may revert many of the National Security policies introduced by former President Obama, which could mean a lift of the ban on torture and a change in the rules designed to minimize civilian casualties in drone strikes.
Trump’s policies on drone warfare are also not very clear. How, and if, the new president will use drone strikes is still a matter of much debate, and while he has spoken about plans to use more surveillance drones on the borders to Mexico and Canada how he will implement these programs remains to be seen.
Will Robots Make Humans Unnecessary?
Epic trends like robotics and artificial intelligence continue to accelerate in their development, there will be a dwindling number of jobs that machines won’t handle better than humans. How should we prepare for an economy that no longer needs us?
A lone researcher recently made a remarkable discovery that may save millions of lives. She identified a chemical compound that effectively targets a key growth enzyme in Plasmodium vivax, the microscopic parasite responsible for most of the world’s malaria cases. The scientist behind this new weapon against one of humanity’s great biological foes didn’t expect praise, a bonus check, or even so much as a hardy pat on the back for her efforts. In fact, “she” lacks the ability to expect anything.
This breakthrough came courtesy of Eve, a “robotic scientist” that resides at the University of Manchester’s Automation Lab. Eve was designed to find new disease-fighting drugs faster and cheaper than her human peers. She achieves this by using advanced artificial intelligence to form original hypotheses about which compounds will murder malicious microbes (while sparing human patients) and then conducting controlled experiments on disease cultures via a pair of specialized robotic arms.
Eve is still under development, but her proven efficacy guarantees that Big Pharma will begin to “recruit” her and her automated ilk in place of comparatively measured human scientists who demand annoying things like “monetary compensation,” “safe work environments,” and “sleep.”
If history is any guide, human pharmaceutical researchers won’t disappear entirely—at least not right away. What will probably happen is that the occupation will follow the path of so many others (assembly line worker, highway toll taker, bank teller) in that the ratio of humans to non-sentient entities will tilt dramatically.
Machines outperforming humans is a tale as old as the Industrial Revolution. But as this process takes hold in the logarithmically evolving Information Age, many are beginning to question if human workers will be necessary at all.