They’re too small, for starters.
But they’re helping researchers develop robot office assistants. Smart ones. Maybe as effective as today’s human office gofers.
I’ll be looking at robots, humanoid and otherwise; tech and attitudes; what I see coming, and why I think we’ll deal with whatever happens.
- Where we’ve been
- News and views
- Today the Gridiron, Tomorrow the World?
- Science, Technology and Mindsets
- Super Monster Wolf: Cybernightmare Guards Crops
- What’s ahead
Seeing the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries as optimistic and everything since as fatalistically despondent isn’t, I think, reasonable. Or realistic. The same could be said for how some optimists see ‘the future.’
The year 2001 was ‘the future’ in my youth. Some folks figured we’d have orbital hotels and fledgling Lunar cities by then.
That didn’t happen. But neither did predictions of oceans filled with dead fish and radioactive skies ensuring that humanity’s final days would be short but agonizing.
I like living in ‘the future.’ The real one. I don’t think today’s fashionable melancholy is any more reasonable that seeing Progress as inevitably nifty. I’m optimistic. Cautiously.
The Victorian upper crust might have seen Progress with a capital “P” as nothing but good news. Or maybe not. Workers were getting uppity.
Robert Owen started giving his workers mere 10-hour shifts in 1810. He started pushing for general acceptance of an 8-hour shift in 1817. French workers demanded and got a 12-hour work day in 1848, an improvement on the longer hours they’d endured.
Polish-American workers in Wisconsin organized a strike in 1886. Dissatisfied with their lot in life, they wanted the short 8-hour shifts enjoyed by some federal workers.
That got some of them killed. But not many. Despite ‘shoot to kill’ orders, 250 National Guardsmen only scored seven kills among the 14,000 workers in Bay View.1
I prefer to think at least some deliberately missed. Slaughtering civilians may have struck many guardsmen as dubiously ethical. At best.
Sometimes refusing to do what someone who’s in charge says is a good idea. The trick is knowing when those in authority are behaving themselves and when they’re not.
I’m obliged to respect authority, and not blindly follow orders that are bad ideas. Everyone comes with a sense of what’s right and what’s not. Learning to use that sense takes effort. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1897–1917, 1954–1960, 2302–2317)
Robots joined flying cars as features in many imagined utopias.
Other authors realized that some folks wouldn’t enjoy their newfound leisure. Or saw dramatic possibilities in the ‘robots took my job’ scenario.
Science fiction writers aren’t the only folks thinking about ‘the future.’
My guess is that pretty much everyone has some view of ‘the future’ in their mind.
For some, it’s simply the next ‘today.’
That might be another day of the same weary weekly trudge or progress toward a goal. ‘Just another day at work’ is rather close to seeing time as cyclic.
‘Life as a cycle’ has been called an eastern view, maybe because we know about Saṃsāra and the bhavachakra. How anyone can see staying on the wheel of life as a good thing is beyond me, and another topic.
The western view, presumably, is linear. I’m not convinced that anyone’s views are quite that simple. Jörmungandr, the Norse world serpent, sounds a lot like Ouroboros.
Ouroboros is “Western” in the sense that it got adopted by Renaissance magic. But we got it from ancient Greeks, who picked it up in Egypt. Ancient Egypt is “Western” in the sense that it’s west of India and Mesopotamia.
I see ancient Egypt as an important part of my civilization’s past, an arguably African civilization and that’s yet another topic.
Maybe so, but I’d picture the Old Testament’s “time” model as more of a helix. It’s cyclic in the sense that folks kept forgetting or ignoring God, finally realizing they’d made a mistake.
That started with the golden calf incident, maybe earlier.
But I see a bit of knowledge and wisdom added in each cycle, so it’s not quite ‘more of the same.’ I’d call the New Testament linear, except I see some of the same ‘oops, we goofed’ helix there, too.
But not the uncritical assumption that new science and tech can’t do anything but make life better. I’ll get back to that. The currently-fashionable notion that Malthusian catastrophes are inevitable and we’re destroying Mother Nature — seems unbalanced too.
Not that we ‘control the forces of nature.’
We’ve learned a great deal in the last few centuries. That helped many folks get out of the way before Mount St. Helens exploded. (March 26, 2017)
I see being curious, studying this wonder-filled universe, as part of being human. We can help or hurt each other. We can make this world a little better for future generations, or not. Science and technology don’t decide what’s done. How we use them is up to us. (December 29, 2017; August 11, 2017)
I’ve read that Pepper’s mission in — life? — is having fun with people, making us happy, and generally enhancing the human experience.
I’d likely be worried if I saw gloominess as Godliness. Or saw pretty much everything as a conspiracy. I don’t, so I see Pepper as not quite as adorable as some Japanese robots. But not a harbinger of doom. Portent of peril. Ominous omen. You get the idea.
That’s partly because I’m not a youngster whose heart is set on becoming a receptionist. A few UK firms have replaced human receptionists with Pepper robots. Heartlessly, perhaps.
Or maybe they figured visitors might like seeing an indefatigably polite, if robotic, face now and then. Facial recognition lets Pepper identify visitors, alert meeting organizers and make arrangements for appropriate drinks.
It’s a chatty bot, apparently, satisfying the human taste for small talk. I never was good at that sort of thing, myself. Pepper’d probably be a better receptionist than me. Cuter, too.
And, I think, very far from uncanny valley: where robots aren’t exactly like humans, but too close for comfort. Our comfort, that is.
NAO, another Aldebaran bot, may not be as up-to-date as Pepper, but I don’t see Pepper having NAO’s talent for soccer. No legs.
Whether we see it as cyclic or linear, time does bring change. Aldebaran is SoftBank Robotics these days and SoftBank has case studies showing Pepper as a good host and promoter.2 I might be worried if my livelihood depended on a glad-handing job.
Or thought the Terminator movies were documentaries.
Many of today’s movie robots aren’t the first homicidal homunculi. Neither were Karel Čapek’s squishy robots. “Robot” apparently comes from the Czech writer’s 1920 “R.U.R.” play.
There’s not much of the intelligent, articulate ‘monster’ of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus” in movies like “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” Oh, well.
“Colossus: The Forbin Project” (1970) and “I, Robot” (2004) followed the time-honored plot of scientists creating artificial intelligence — which tries, more-or-less-successfully, to destroy its creator and/or take over the world.
I enjoy the occasional ‘rogue robot’ tale. But don’t see a robot apocalypse in the offing. (January 28, 2018)
Maybe someone will make a movie where the wannabe evil robot overlord taunts the hero with “nothing can withstand my FILE NOT FOUND!” Or maybe not.
“What happens when AI meets robotics?”
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (March 11, 2018)
“Researchers in Texas are developing robots that have minds of their own.
“The scientists are creating systems that can learn for themselves and be able to operate in the home, the workplace and even on the sports field.
“The University of Texas, Austin team is incorporating artificial intelligence into its machines so that they can deal with real-world situations.
“Among the systems are automated assistants that will carry out simple tasks in a working office….”
The “simple tasks” include finding a colleague or spotting and returning with a particular object. They’re simple. For a human.
Robots doing the same thing need to go past recognizing human speech and responding to particular phrases. They’ll need to understand our language. That means noticing what each word means in context, then getting meaningful information from statements.
The robot football squad doesn’t necessarily have good listening skills. They’re helping researchers get robots out of the factory another way.
Which reminds me, about “gridiron” and “football.” My English is American, mostly, so I’m not talking about cooking grills or association football.
Rugby isn’t soccer, soccer is football but it’s not the game Americans call football. That illustration shows what a rugby football looks like.
American footballs would be prolated spheroids if they didn’t have pointed ends. Which they do.
It’s as if a prolated spheroid decided to be a spindle just after the last possible opportunity. Except that implies self-awareness and volition in what’s essentially an inanimate object.
Somebody said our countries are “separated by a common language.”
It could have been George Bernard Shaw. Maybe it was, but folks apparently can’t find the quote in Shaw’s published work. I figured it might be Churchill. Or someone else. It showed up in a 1940s magazine:
“The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.”
(Reader’s Digest (November 1942))
And that’s yet again another topic. Now, about footballs and spheroids. Since you’re human, you’re able to take an anthropomorphic reference as something other than a literal description. Which brings me back to robots playing football.
The idea isn’t replacing human football players. It’s developing smarter robots. Board games like chess aren’t exactly easy, but players take turns. One player moves, the other player moves, and so on.
In games like football, every member of each team and the ball may be moving. And there isn’t time to plan the ‘next move.’
“…Science fiction films predicted that in the future we would have intelligent robots.
“In the Day the Earth Stood Still, we had the sinister Gort; in Forbidden Planet there was Robby; and in the TV series Lost In Space it was Zachary Smith’s nemesis, the Robot.
“It’s been more than 50 years since those fictional representations – so where are they?
“Although we have had robots in factories for decades, getting them to leave the shop-floor has been no easy task. In manufacturing plants, they carry out pre-ordained, repetitive tasks all day and night.
“But if they step outside, they are unable to deal with the chaos of the real world. It is a place where order and routine are gone. Even the simplest of tasks are complicated by the unpredictability and vagueness of human interaction….”
(Pallab Gosh, BBC News)
These Texas University researchers aren’t trying to write software that’ll understand our language. They figure AI, Artificial Intelligence, makes more sense. Their ‘office’ robots learn the way we do, more or less.
Humans often have the basics mastered by our first birthday. Very basic basics. Our vocabulary generally starts with words like “mama,” “dada,” and “uhoh.” We can understand more complex statements, like “come here.”
Humans learn language, our ‘cradle language’ anyway, by interacting with other humans. Mostly our parents, at first.3
The Texas U. ‘office’ robots start with a few pre-programmed voice commands. They learn more by asking questions. Lots of questions. Sort of like a human toddler, but without our need for sleep.
Maybe the robots would have stopped asking questions, eventually. The humans ran out of patience first. Dr. Jesse Thomason, a linguist, reprogrammed the robots to ask up to five questions; and then stop.
Dr. Andrea Thomaz, another researcher, is helping the robots learn social skills. That includes waving at a human, then looking for movement or facial expressions that signal being ready to talk.
It’s the sort of thing that ‘just comes naturally’ to humans. Or so I’ve been told. Observing, analyzing and sending appropriate social cues is much more of a learned skill for me. It still takes conscious effort. (February 11, 2018; March 19, 2017)
Finally, about “the chaos of the real world.” I’ll agree that human behavior is a bit unpredictable and “vague.” But chaotic? Our behavior is complex, sometimes unpredicable, and occasionally ambiguous.
But very few of us are really chaotic in the ‘Daffy Duck on crack’ sense. My opinion.
“The World Is Better Than Ever. Why Are We Miserable?”
Andrew Sullivan, Daily Intelligencer (March 9, 2018)
“Earlier this week, I went to a lecture given by Steven Pinker on his latest book, Enlightenment Now. I’m a huge and longtime fan of Pinker’s, and his book ‘The Blank Slate’ was, for me, a revelation. He’s become a deep and important critic of the visceral hostility to nature and science now so sadly prevalent on the left and right, a defender of reason and the Enlightenment against the ‘social justice’ movements on campus, and his new book is a near-relentless defense of modernity….”
About that last word, “modernity.” What it means depends partly on context, partly on who’s talking. (Wikipedia)
Modernity is a historical period, roughly 16th to 20th. Or maybe 21st. Some folks say it’s still in progress, others say we’re in a postmodern era now. Artists, architects, and soreheads all have their own definitions.
Some Catholics apparently see modernity and our faith as incompatible. If “modernity” gets defined as unquestioning rejection of anything other than strict materialism, they’ve got a point.
Wishing it was more like the 11th, or 1st, seems like a waste of time, at best.
Not that most ‘repeal Vatican II’ Catholics want a thousand-year rewind.
I get the impression that many folks who don’t approve of newfangled ideas see their youth or early adulthood as civilization’s last good years. Or maybe it’s the ‘good times’ their parents remembered.
That’s not just ‘traditional’ Catholics, and I don’t think yesteryearnings started in the late 20th century.
“Yesteryearning?” I haven’t seen the word in a dictionary, unless urbandictionary.com counts. The top entry there was from March of 2015, which in ‘Internet time’ is quite a long while ago.
Now, about what the op-ed said.
For all I knew, New York magazine might be as serious about news and views as The Onion.
Wikipedia says the current New York magazine started in 1963 as a Sunday supplement in the New York Herald Tribune newspaper.
It’s been separate magazine since 1968. The idea was giving folks a “brasher and less polite” alternative to the New Yorker.
The magazine’s website says it’s about “Politics, Entertainment, Fashion, Restaurants & NY.” From what I saw, that’s an accurate description.
I haven’t read “The Blank Slate” or Patrick J. Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed,” the next book Sullivan discussed. They’re probably worth perusing.
Today I’m talking about science and technology, attitudes and all that. Sullivan’s ‘compare and contrast’ gives me plenty to work with. Links in Sullivan’s op-ed take you to Amazon.com, if you’ve got time and leisure for more reading.
Pinker’s book apparently shows “irrefutable statistics showing human progress.” It’s an impressive list: declining violence, rising democracy, lowering poverty, better health and longer life.
I’m pretty sure finding statistics to refute the irrefutable wouldn’t take long. With so many sorts of violence, some subdivision almost certainly went up since the 1950s. Cyberbullying, for example, was unknown in my youth.
So was the Internet as we know it, but I could leave that detail out. I wouldn’t. More accurately, I shouldn’t. Distorting truth is a bad idea. (Ephesians 4:25–26; 1 Peter 2:1; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2475–2487)
I’m not a fan of doomsayers or 24-hour angst. Being aware of problems seems reasonable. Seeing nothing but problems? Not so much. (February 2, 2018)
Seeing nothing but inevitable Progress? Optimism is nice. If it’s matched with reasoned awareness. Off-the-leash optimism let many believe they’d find happiness in a pill. That didn’t, as I recall, start with the 1960s. ‘Happy pill’ prescriptions — are still another topic.
(From Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927), via Neflix, used w/o permission.)
(A big machine seen as Moloch, eating workers. The hero in “Metropolis” is hallucinating.)
Sullivan takes us back to familiar territory with Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed.”
“…as Deneen understands, we are where we are. There is no going back. For our civilization, God is dead. Meaning is meaningless outside the satisfaction of our material wants and can become, at its very best, merely a form of awe at meaninglessness. We have no common concept of human flourishing apart from materialism, and therefore we stand alone. Maybe we will muddle through this way indefinitely, and I sure hope we do….”
“…But I have never seen such an astonishingly rapid ascent without an equally sudden decline, a return to the mean….”
(Sullivan, New York)
I don’t think we will. We’ve stopped using many pesticides and are cleaning up after past mistakes. Tree farms are part of quite a few rural economies. And yes, the farmers replant after each harvest.
I don’t see meaning as meaningless. Or machines as man-made Molochs. I never was good at being ‘relevant.’
I certainly don’t hope “…we will muddle through this way indefinitely….” I’m also quite sure we couldn’t if we tried.
“Everything changes and nothing stands still.”
(Heraclitus (c. 535 BC-475 BC))
I’d fear change if I thought we’d finally built a perfect world. Or gotten as close to that ideal as possible. Maybe someone, somewhere, thinks everything’s dandy. I sure don’t.
I’m not sure what “equally sudden decline” Sullivan has in mind. We’ve had massive disasters, like the Black Death pandemic about two-thirds of a millennium back now.
I’m far from convinced that it was the start of a “sudden decline.” Apart from the abrupt drop in population, of course. Change, yes. Decline, not really.
It was ‘the end of civilization as we know it,’ at least in Europe. Unless someone sees Medieval Europe as the only possible model for civilizations.
I see it as something that worked rather well while it lasted. And was admirable in some ways. But I don’t yearn for its return.
The Renaissance wasn’t, I think, a Golden Age. But I don’t see it as all bad news. Or, by any reasonable standard, an overall decline. I see today’s world pretty much the same way.
We don’t know what set off the Late Bronze Age Collapse. It was, for the survivors, the end of civilization as they knew it. Many left the devastated areas.
Some abandoned cities were never rebuilt. Others were. Eventually. Western civilization hasn’t been the same since. The ‘good old days’ when Troy was the Mediterranean’s New York City never returned.
“‘Super Monster Wolf’ a success in Japan farming trials”
News from Elsewhere, BBC News (March 6, 2018)
“A robot wolf designed to protect farms has proved to be such a success in trials that it is going into mass production next month.
“The ‘Super Monster Wolf’ is a 65cm-long, 50cm-tall robot animal covered with realistic-looking fur, featuring huge white fangs and flashing red eyes, Asahi Television reports.
“It’s been designed to keep wild boar away from rice and chestnut crops, and was deployed on a trial basis near Kisarazu City in Japan’s eastern Chiba prefecture last July….”
I don’t know about the caption, “…easily-fooled….” Maybe wild boars are easily fooled. Tales I’ve heard and read show them as strong and determined. Brainy, not so much. That’s more of a ‘fox’ thing. In stories.
On the other hand, boars can’t be all that stupid. Various wild boar species have been thriving over the last couple million years.
I can’t see critters doing that by taking crazy chances. Like sticking around to see if a foot-and-a-half tall red-eyed — thing — can run as well as it howls.
Easily-fooled or not, wild boars apparently give “super monster wolf” a wide berth: something like a kilometer.
Developers say it’s programmed with different howls. All lupine, I assume.
The robotic terror isn’t cheap.
Production models will run about 514,000 yen each. That’s $4,840 USD, £3,480. My guess is that quite a few farmers will see leasing as a better option.
Aside from cost and maybe scaring the daylights out of some folks, I don’t see a big ‘down’ side to this robot. It’ll affect the environment, like anything else humans do. Including planting crops and making scarecrows.
I suppose it’s just a matter of time before someone runs ‘save the boars’ up a flagpole. It might get limited support, provided promoters focus on the robo-wolf’s horrific face. Wild boars aren’t, I think, photogenic.
I’ll grant that artists can do wonders. Porky Pig’s so cute that nobody’s seemed to notice that he doesn’t wear pants. And that’s — a very weird topic.
AI like HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey” seemed quite possible back in 1968.
We already had massively-powerful computers like ENIAC, EDVAC and ORDVAC. Integrated circuits were getting smaller and more complex.
My guess is that quite a few folks didn’t wonder if information systems would ever successfully imitate humans. The question was when it would happen.
Then we started trying to build AI that think like humans. Or at least could learn to open a door without falling over.
Don’t let that 2015 blooper reel fool you, by the way. A few robots not only got the door open, but even used a wrench. Successfully.
But even those exemplary robots were hardly ‘terminator’ material.
Maybe a system that ‘thinks like a human’ is out there. Or in development. The last I heard, though, that’s still ‘after next generation’ tech. At best.4
Toyota dealers in Japan released the company’s “compact and cuddlesome Kirobo Mini communication partner” last November. Toyota’s website says Kirobo Mine can:
- “Engage in casual conversation, backed by gestures and the ability to respond to user emotions
- “Learn and provide tailored companionship by remembering user preferences and past events
- “Fit in the palm of your hand with a seated height of only 10 cm and be taken just about anywhere
- “Enhance its conversational ability using information from the vehicle and home”
(Newsroom, Toyota (November 22, 2017))
I’ve seen some reviewers rhetorically asking ‘what’s it good for?’ They’ve got a point. But I also think America is facing a serious cuteness gap.
Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini doesn’t exhibit human intelligence. It does, however, display great singleness of purpose in this demo video. And the human — is very ‘human.’
Maybe it’s just as well that robots like SpotMini don’t mimic human emotional responses. Or canine ones.
I don’t think Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini threatens the place dogs have in our hearts and homes.
On the other hand, I’m pretty sure it could fetch the mail without delivering a soggy mess. I don’t think Boston Dynamics has quite grasped the ‘cute and cuddly’ concept. Or, more likely, that’s not their goal.
The point of the SpotMini demo isn’t that a Boston Dynamics robot can open doors. It’s that their robot is quite good at dealing with unexpected circumstances. So is Atlas, one of their humanoid robots.
Just as Pepper poses a threat to aspiring receptionists, coming generations of Atlas may thwart a new generation’s ambitions to someday become a stock clerk.
That dire day is not yet here, however. A skilled human handles crates about half again as fast as Atlas, and perhaps with fewer fumbles.
But I think the writing is on the wall, and woe betide those who dream of a lifetime’s service in warehouses. For their dreams shall be shattered. Maybe.
A bit more seriously, some folks may have little choice other than earning money by moving stuff from one spot to another. That sort of work is also, I think, valuable as ‘entry level’ employment. There have been times when I’d have welcomed such opportunities.
Besides, we’re not all alike. And aren’t supposed to be. I can do ‘assembly line’ work, but not at all well. And it starts driving me nuts after about five repetitions. Nuttier, actually.
My wife, in stark contrast, is good at that sort of thing and enjoys it. I figure it’s personality and talent, not ‘intelligence.’ She’s the one with a computer science degree, not me.
I don’t know exactly what’s coming in the next decade or so. I’m pretty sure we’ll see more robots. Some of them will be ‘taking our jobs.’ That will, I think, be hard for folks who can’t learn new skills, or don’t want to.
Some may miss ‘the good old days’ when they found fulfillment and purpose in stacking crates or greeting visitors. But I think most of us will adjust. Making those adjustments easier — is important, and a topic for another day.
Take blacksmiths, for example.
I live in a town of about 4,000 people. The next-larger town is about 25 miles down the road. But we don’t have a single blacksmith shop. I don’t know what folks whose horse threw a shoe do.
Folks with cars and trucks don’t have that sort of problem. We’ve got filling stations and several outfits that offer varying levels of automotive maintenance and repair services. I have yet to hear someone say the dearth of blacksmiths spells our doom.
I think today’s and tomorrow’s adjustments will be easier if we remember that science and technology is what humans do. So is helping each other.
That’s how it’s supposed to work, at least:
- “Robots and Being Catholic”
(January 28, 2018)
- “Books and Flying Cars”
(January 26, 2018)
- “Advent: Our Long Watch”
(December 3, 2017)
- “Internet Friends, Real People”
(March 19, 2017)
- “Authority, Superstition, Progress”
(October 30, 2016)
- SoftBank Robotics
- Infant and toddler health
Health and Lifestyle, Mayo Clinic