Communications Breakdown

Recently I got an email my favorite uncle sent to my gmail account.  In the email, he posed a question about something, and when I opened his email I found that the gmail autobots had already provided me with three options for a reply email — “yes,” “I don’t know,” and “no.”  Any one of the three options would in fact have been responsive to the email question.

cyberAII found this troubling.  Of course, the proposed response options revealed that the gmail autobots had read the email to me, had interpreted the question correctly, and were sophisticated enough to develop likely responses.  It wasn’t a matter of simply seeing a question mark and generating standard replies; the proposed responses wouldn’t have been appropriate for a question about where something happened or when something was bound to occur.  But the privacy issues involved in this “read the email and suggest responses” process really didn’t bother me all that much, because anybody who thinks there is much privacy in gmail communications is really kidding themselves.

No, what bothered me instead was the continued roboticization of our interpersonal communications.  I wondered how many people, faced with this same scenario, would simply have chosen one of the three response options, used the phrasing proposed by the autobots, and been done with it.  The concept offended me, so I typed a response to the question in my own words — and of course the autobots made suggestions about my wording and employed autofill in case I needed to make the communications process even faster, more hassle-free . . . and less personal.

The whole incident made me think about how, in some respects, technology isn’t aiding meaningful human interaction, but instead might be effectively preventing it.  How much of our communications — from the “Happy birthday” wishes on Facebook to the proposed responses to email messages — is in fact a canned bit of programming sent by pushing a button, rather than the actual expression of a human being?

Nobody sends handwritten letters any more, but is a personally typed, self-composed email too much to ask?

Advertisements

Bad Robot

In these days of constant technological innovation, you almost expect to read about new marvels in robotics and “smart” technology on a daily basis.  But sometimes technological advancements aren’t really advancements at all.

russia-fake-robotConsider Boris the Robot, lauded on Russian TV as a cutting-edge development in robotics with the ability to walk, talk and dance.  Boris appeared on a broadcast, spoke in a robotic voice about his desire to learn to draw, and then danced to a song called Skibidi.  The broadcast said Boris’ dancing was “not that bad.”

But skeptics of Boris abounded.  How in the world could Boris move around without any observable external sensors, they wondered.  And why did the robot make so many “unnecessary movements” while dancing?  (A standard one hopes is never applied to human dancers, incidentally.)  And it also was suspicious that Boris just happened to be configured in a way that would have allowed a human being to be inside.

And then the illusion all came crashing down when a photo of Boris from behind showed a clearly visible section of human neck between Boris’ head and body.  Alas, Boris was in fact a guy in a robot suit — a robot suit specifically designed to give people “the near total illusion that before you stands a real robot.”

It just goes to show that it pays to retain a bit of skepticism about claimed technological advancements.  Before you buy that touted “smart” appliance, consider whether it’s really all that “smart” after all.  And before you go ga ga over a robot doing a twitching dance to modern music, be sure to check the neck area.

Chatting Up Astro Boy

The Japanese have come up with a solution for astronaut loneliness:  they’ve designed a talking robot that was sent up into space yesterday to serve as a companion for the Japanese astronaut who will be commanding the International Space Station later this year.  The robot, called Kirobo, is part of a study of how machines can interact emotionally with humans who are isolated.

Kirobo is 13 inches tall, is capable of various movements, and was modeled on the cartoon character Astro Boy.  Kirobo is programmed to communicate in Japanese and to recognize the face of astronaut Kochi Wakata, so Kirobo can greet Wakata when they meet up at the International Space Station.  The robot will record all of his conversations with Wakata and also may serve as a conduit for messages from the control room.  Kirobo’s designer says he hopes the robot will serve as a kind of mediator between human and machine.

The Japanese are constantly breaking new ground in robotics, and Kirobo is just the latest development.  Still, I wonder about the underlying concept.  Our technology has progressed to the point where we routinely communicate with machines, through keyboards and voice commands, but an emotional connection just doesn’t happen. No one considers Siri their BFF.

Will a lonely astronaut, fresh from a hard day’s work on the ISS, really want to have a deep conversation with a doll-like invention that looks like Astro Boy?  Would Mission Control be more concerned if the astronaut didn’t connect emotionally with Kirobo — or if he did?  Is talking to a tiny machine really that much emotionally healthier than talking to yourself?

The Robotic Incursion

There’s a new robot out there called Baxter.  Created by Rethink Robotics, Baxter has a humanoid torso, two robotic arms, and a face-like display screen.

None of that is especially ground-breaking, but Baxter offers more.  According to his website, Baxter is designed to work cheek-by-jowl with humans, cheerfully doing the endlessly repetitive jobs that used to drive former assembly-line workers nuts.  Baxter’s “head” is equipped with 360-degree sonar and a camera to allow him to detect humans.  Baxter also has “behavior-based intelligence” and gizmos in his arms that “feel” when he bumps into objects — or people.  The website also says Baxter is easily programmed and integrated into the workforce.

Oh, and here’s the kicker:  Baxter costs only $22,000.  That’s less than the salaries of most industrial workers.  And Baxter doesn’t require employers to worry about absenteeism or tardiness, he doesn’t take sick days or file workers compensation lawsuits, he doesn’t need to be insured or provided with a pension or vacation days, and he won’t steal from the supply room, grouse about the boss at the break table, or try to unionize the workplace.  Is it any wonder that Baxter has been greeted by great sales to the manufacturing industry?

Baxter is marketed as “a compelling alternative to low-cost offshoring for manufacturers of all sizes.”   That is, you can buy Baxter and keep your plant in Dayton, Joliet, or Scranton rather than moving production capacity to China, because when you factor in shipping costs, customs duties, and other offshore expenses — to say nothing of bad PR — Baxter is competitive with those low-cost alternatives.  Of course, Baxter also will be taking away American assembly line jobs, but they were likely gone, anyway.  At least the jobs of providing maintenance for a workforce of Baxters, and the white-collar jobs related to selling and shipping the goods Baxter manufactures, will stay in the U.S.A.

Baxter is just one example of the robotic incursion into the American workforce that is already here and that will become more apparent with each passing year.  Robotics has long been part of the manufacturing world, and now it is primed to move into the service industry.  One day soon you’ll walk into a fast-food restaurant and be surprised when a Baxter-like bot takes your order, prepares your cheeseburger and fries, and hands it to you with a touch-screen smile.

The Hedgehogs Of Phobos, And Some Thoughts On Robotics

If NASA scientists get their way, we’ll soon be exploring the Martian moon Phobos using small, hedgehog-like robots.

Phobos is tiny — more of an asteroid than the Moon we see in the evening sky — and very rugged.  It’s a low-gravity environment, though, which means it’s an attractive candidate for a mission where materials are gathered and then actually physically returned to Earth for testing and analysis.  The tests would allow us to determine whether Phobos is, in fact, a wandering asteroid captured by Mars’ gravity, or whether it is part of Mars that broke off long ago.  Either answer would help us better understand the solar system and how it developed.

But how to explore such a small, low-gravity object and figure out where to do the gathering?  Wheel-oriented devices tend to lose traction and spin uncontrollably under such conditions.  So, scientists and engineers are developing a spiky device, like a hedgehog, that could precisely navigate the surface of Phobos by spinning, hopping, and tumbling.  The hedgehog — will it be called Sonic? — would serve as a scout, gathering data that would allow for a follow-up mission.

Robotics is an interesting field, because it combines cutting-edge technological advances with creative problem-solving.  With robots, you aren’t wedded to standard forms.  If a wheeled device doesn’t work under the circumstances, you can try some other form that might work better.  It might be a spiky hedgehog, or a spinning disk, or something else.  The design freedom that robotic engineers have must be liberating, and challenging — and probably fun, too!

Old sci-fi fans are waiting for the day when every household has a humanoid robot to do the boring chores.  That day may be far off, but the reality is that we all are using robotic technology more and more frequently — in cars, in household appliances, and in factories.  I recently saw a mainstream, prime- time TV commercial for a robotic vacuum cleaner.  I don’t know how it’s selling, but maybe the days of robotic members of the family aren’t that far off, after all.

Robot Art

We’ve gotten used to constant advances in robotics.  Robots have beaten humans at chess and Jeopardy.  Robots do lots of driving and flying for us.  Robots have taken manufacturing jobs formerly held by humans.  Could the next frontier be robot art?

Not yet — but now a robot has been programmed to draw human portraits.  It’s an industrial robot that has been programmed.  The process uses a camera, software that seeks out contrasts while not focusing on every tiny feature in a human face, and the precise movements of a robot arm.

The result is a rendering of a human face that is competent and lifelike — but I wouldn’t call it art.  What makes a great portrait is not simply the professional technique used to create the likeness, but the creative spark that highlights the feature that really defines the subject.  Perhaps it is the spark in the eyes, or the set of the mouth, or the tilt of the head, but the skilled artist will always find and accentuate the special quality that defines the individual.  An artist who draws everyone in precisely the same way isn’t really a portrait artist in my book.

So, Russell’s chosen field is safe, at least for now.  What’s next — robot lawyers?

Robot Juggling

Okay, I admit it.  As any reader of this blog knows, I have a weakness for news about robots (especially weird robots) and robot technology.  I bet you didn’t know, however, that I also have a weakness for juggling.  And when you combine robots and juggling, I am helpless.

Who would have thought that running a search on YouTube for “robot juggling” would yield such a rich bounty?  If we can create juggling robots, can household robots who wait on us hand and foot be far behind?