Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas
Edinburgh Fringe 9/8/2017
One of my highlights of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe was a talk by Professor Ruth Aylett of Herriot Watt University entitled ‘The Robots are Coming’. In it she talked us through the current state of the art, what distinguishes robots from living things and the hopes and fears they conjure up in us humans.
Of the fears, Professor Aylett addressed that of the threat of robots to our jobs. She did this by asking if there were any Charcoal Burners in the audience, or Cup Bearers or if anyone worked in a Typing Pool. The point being that jobs have been disappearing for hundreds of years as we find more effective ways of working.
The inputs to and the outputs from
The Typing Pool is a particularly interesting case. There were a couple of people in the audience who had worked in a typing pool but no longer did as a result of the advent of Word Processing. Professor Aylett noted that she now worked with University Administrators who once worked in the Typing Pool but now worked on wrangling “The inputs to and the outputs from” university IT systems. That is, enabling computer systems to deal with their environment. In fact, it’s not really their environment, it’s ours, the environment of living things, one which computer systems, AIs and robots are not at all good at dealing with.
90% of the cost of industrial robots is designing their environments
If you’ve seen Professor Danielle George touring the Mini factory in BBC Four’s Hyper Evolution — Rise of the Robots, you’ll know all about this. Huge Industrial Robots are encaged safely away from all things human. Professor Aylett puts the designing of these environments as accounting for 90% of the cost of industrial robots.
Stairs and Lego are going to kill you
This cost is not surprising when you see how much work robots need to do just to survive outside of these purpose-built environments. This is in part to do with how difficult it is to move around unfamiliar or, for a robot, unsuitable terrain. Professor Aylett gave the recent example of a security robot that came to a sorry end when it fell down some stairs and ended up drowned in an office fountain.
Another example Professor Aylett gave was vacuum cleaning robots working in houses shared with young children. These robots don’t know that running over any Lego bricks left in its path will almost certainly end up with the bricks getting stuck causing the robot burning out it’s motors. This is because, in this foreign environment, a robot’s Artificial Intelligence does not know what anything means. it can see patterns in data but it doesn’t know the significance of these patterns.
We humans on the other hand do know the significance of these patterns. We share this knowledge with each other. As Professor Aylett puts it ‘Intelligence is social’. For me it was the challenges and potential for interaction between humans and robots, understanding ‘the inputs to and the outputs from’ the living and the robotic that really made this talk a highlight of the Edinburgh Fringe.
Sharing the stage with Professor Aylett were the non-human stars of the show, Pepper the Day to Day companion robot and Paro the Therapeutic Robot Seal. Pepper takes on one of the great challenges of Robot / Human intereaction — understanding feelings.
Professor Aylett used the example of a smile to show just how hard this is for humans let alone robots. A smile can mean someone is angry, terrified, embarrassed or perhaps even happy.
Paro allows the benefits of ‘animal therapy’ to be realised in environments such as hospitals and care homes where animals themselves cannot be accommodated.
The last part of the talk was given over to an audience Q&A. I asked Professor Aylett what she thought it was that motivated us to want to create such robots.
Her response was that we humans like automating things and we’ve been doing it for hundreds of years. On top of that we have a long fascination with creating something that can come alive, the example of the Prague Golem dates back to the 16th Century.
What I like about this answer is it encourages us to think of Robots as a part of our humanity rather than an ‘other’ for us to fear. So rather than seeing them as a threat, see them as a means of better understanding ourselves and our environment.
Imagine a child teaching a vacuum cleaner what a Lego brick was and to give it a wide berth in future? I’m optimistic about this. In any case, I think it has way more chance of happening than Children learning not to leave their Lego all over the floor in the first place.