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Here come the robots!

23 July 2014
by Brian Keeley
Hi guys!

Hi guys!

In the first of two postings, we look at the impact of artificial intelligence on our societies and economies.

How do you feel about robots? Do you look forward to one day lying by the pool sipping a piña colada mixed by your beaming electronic buddy? Or do you expect to die cowering in your hovel as an army of metal men batter down the door?

Wherever you stand, it’s hard to feel completely indifferent about robots. That’s no accident: Today, robots are real – think of the Roomba vacuum cleaner – but for most of human history they were figments of our imagination. Long before the word “robot” was coined by the Czech writer Karel Čapek in the 1920s, humans told tales of artificial life – from the Golem of Jewish culture to Frankenstein’s monster. By serving up an image of a creature that was like us, but not one of us, these fictions reflected, in part, on what it means to be human.

In the 20th century, this fictional role switched, and the robot became increasingly a “way of exploring human feelings about technology,” according to The Economist’s Oliver Morton. By and large, those explorations have gone in one of two directions – either towards a utopia where robots serve humanity or a dystopia where they steal our jobs.

Over the coming years, we’re likely to need to think even more about these questions as robots – and artificial intelligence more generally – move out of the pages of fiction and into our lives. This past year has bought a wave of evidence that this is happening much faster than we might have expected.

When Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe visited OECD Week back in May, he referred to robots and robotics several times in his speech as he pledged to “create a ‘new Industrial Revolution’ through the use of robots”. Japan is not alone: In July, a British agency unveiled a robotics strategy targeted at helping the UK to “win a much bigger share of a potential £70bn global robotics market by 2025,” according to the Financial Times.

Business, too, shows growing signs of interest. In recent months Google has bought eight robotics companies, while a couple of years ago Amazon bought robot-maker Kiva Systems for an eye-popping $750 million. Even China, which built an economic miracle in part on cheap human labour, is turning to robots. Officials in Guangzhou, a manufacturing hub in the south of the country, report that demand for factory robots is rising by 30% a year, the China Daily reports.

Why all the interest? To a large extent it reflects the fact that the cost of physical “robots” and software “bots” is falling rapidly while their capacity is soaring. As Richard Waters notes in the FT, three key factors are helping to bring this about.

First, the cost of computing power is falling relentlessly, fulfilling Gordon Moore’s long-ago prediction of a doubling in such power every two years. Second, digital data is becoming increasingly abundant, allowing the development of ever more subtle pattern-recognition software. Humans are highly skilled in pattern recognition – it’s why we’re so good at chess and at spotting minute differences human faces. Computers are still playing catch up, but the gap is narrowing – they can already beat us at chess. And, third it’s becoming ever-easier for us poor humans to communicate and interact with complex software systems – if you’re one of those lucky people with an accent that Siri actually understands, you’ll know all about this.

Indeed, the role that smartphones are playing in driving robot technology is notable. “Most of the components in smartphones are [the] same ones you need in robots—sensors, cameras, batteries, processors,” according to Dmitry Grishin, who runs a fund that invests in robotics. “The biggest difference between now and 20 years ago is that the components have become cheap.”

Of course, no technology can thrive unless it meets a need. And, here again, it looks as if the robot’s moment has come. The success of gadgets like robot cleaners, drones and robot cow-milkers (yes, really) is likely to drive demand for more. But other factors, such as our ageing societies, are also playing a role. The European Union’s Silver project is investigating the use of robots to support old people living independently, while in Japan, one of the best-known robots is Paro, a cuddly seal for the elderly and the ill.

So, whether we like it or not, the robots really are coming. A good thing or not? We’ll return to that question soon.

Useful links

OECD work on science, technology and innovation

One Response
  1. Tom permalink
    July 28, 2014

    I, for one, don’t think “robotization” need be feared or in any way impeded. It’s who builds the robots and for what purpose that should be heavily scrutinized.

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