Would You like Your Service Today Live or Programmed, Madam?
By Steven Ferry
In the 1990's, I interviewed several futurists who, amongst other predictions, anticipated the omnipresence of robots in the workforce. In 2001 (unrelated to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey), I spoke at a butler convention about a convergence of "hominids" (humans) and robots: the robots becoming more human and the humans becoming more robotic—and warned that this did not augur (signal) well for humans who preferred superior service. Hospitality, basic definition is friendly, which comes from an Indo-European root word meaning love. Met any friendly robots recently, ones who expressed their heartfelt love? Or for that matter, from staff who lack passion for service?
Therein lies the key—as in an early, futuristic silent movie that showed a food conveyor belt in a canteen grinding to a halt after a new worker failed to take his soup bowl off the belt—because he didn't like soup—and the mechanical breakdowns cascading until the whole, interconnected, automated society ground to a halt. Freedom of choice, a vital component in life, goes against the whole ethos of robotics and automation, which are designed to control according to fixed programs input by others in some distant time and location and according to the dogmas of the time.
The Ghost of Robots Past
Man has envisioned robots performing chores for decades, if not centuries: 2,400 years ago, Philo of Byzantium built a robot wannabe that poured wine when a cup was placed in its hand. A Czech dramatist, Karel Capek, coined the word robota in his 1920 play R.U.R. to describe the artificial creatures featured in the play. Robota means "work" in various Slavic languages, providing a clear indication of the role man envisions for his robots. The character, Harry Domin, declares (unadvisedly) in the play, "Work humiliates, anyone who's forced to do it, is made small."
In the 1940's, they were still just dreaming about robots: a TV program showed a robot butler that would, at the press of a button, perform household chores so that mum did not have to work. An actor was dressed as the robot in the show, because robot technology was still as non-existent as in Philo's time. As a side note, they called it a robot butler—perhaps based on the role Philo conceived for his robot, the butler profession being founded on wine service—and the moniker has stuck ever since: almost every robot created is marketed as a "robot butler."
The incessant messaging over the decades from Madison Avenue selling "Don't work, happiness comes from consumption and relaxation" kept alive the fantasy of a robotic servant—Rosie the Robot in the 1960's Jetson's cartoons, for instance, but a change occurred that moved the whole concept beyond the fanciful: robot technology was finally coming into being—General Motors introduced the first robot, Unimate, in an industrial setting—the definition of "robot" being "any machine that is smart enough to make autonomous decisions."
While we have been exposed to continued fantasy (robot superiority with the faceless and faulty Hal in the 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey, and R2D2's human face in the 1977 launch of Star Wars—and in the last couple of years, it seems every other movie involves superhuman robots), always pushing the envelope, science and reality have been not too far behind, pursuing two apparent goals: a) to make us all into docile consumers who are freed from the demands of work; b) to harness human ingenuity and intelligence and make the gods who create the robots, subservient to them in capability—to improve on nature in other words, whether for commercial or militaristic ends.
As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.
Just a quarter of a century after R2D2, a Dutch supermarket chain employed Schrobbie, a robot that carefully navigated around obstacles and, if those happened to be hominids, saying, "Excuse me, I'd like to clean here." Of course, a real maid would know not to disturb customers—but this is a restriction that robots no doubt would find most illogical. When Schrobbie wasn't scrubbing and vacuuming, it was distributing mail, conducting inspection rounds, and transporting passengers and goods. All work done previously by low-wage and poorly educated hominids.
Why replace hominids with robots?
After an upfront cost and with minimal maintenance, robots work all hours and days of the year, never taking off time for sickness, holidays, vacations, maternity leave; never joining unions nor going on strike nor asking for raises; never refusing work because it is outside its job description (simply requiring re-programming); never having personal problems, vendettas, nor talking back; never faking injuries for long-term disability nor threatening to sue; and requiring not a cent in payroll and payroll taxes.
On the downside, they do break down or malfunction (Hal) occasionally, and infuriate (and lose the trust/patience of) customers because of their inability to think or act outside their programming. After their initial gimmick value, they are an impediment in the same way that a long series of automated phone-tree choices are when a caller just wants to talk to a real person that can think for himself and answer a simple question. Granted, some hominids specialize in stopping, rather than servicing; but for every one of these, there are ten who will listen and help. Not so a poorly programmed phone answering-system/robot—for it certainly is hard to program every eventuality into an automated system/robot.
Moore's Law Applies
If you think change has been rapid, better not blink during the next few years.
"If current trends of computer development and human replacement continue, the traditional labor market will be a thing of the past as a consequence of machine intelligence." Moshe Vardi, Rice University computer science professor
Robotics still faces many barriers, but scientists are overcoming them. Project teams such as CloPeMa and University of California Berkeley's PR2 are working on developing robots that can fold clothing (it is humbling, perhaps, to designers that such simple actions for hominids are extremely complex and challenging for robots to be programmed to do). The focus with Carnegie Mellon University's Herb is to increase the robot's ability to sense, evaluate, and handle objects. Right now, he can't unload a dishwasher, but advances are being made: Waseda University's Wendy could crack open an egg in 1998; by 2007 its successor, Twendy, could butter toast.
Eight years later, and we have Fraunhofer Institute's Care-O-bot 4 for homes, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, and other industries: able to deliver food and drinks, and assist with cooking and cleaning.
The state of the art sees robots with cutsie names, whether in the home, hospitality, or other service environments, fast acquiring skills and taking over hominid jobs. Nao handles customer-relations in The Bank of Tokyo; Nestlé has robots selling coffee makers in stores; a restaurant in China has robot chefs, and waiters who take food to (the vicinity of) the diners; Henn-na hotel in Japan is the world's first hotel run mostly (90% ultimately) by robots—which, incidentally, only respond to Japanese, fail to reply to any human emotion or social communications, and only activate at 3pm check-in time. The owner's goal being to create the most efficient hotel in the world by reducing manpower—a goal that will probably not resonate with hominid guests, but will appear very attractive to robot guests.
Caption: Guests provide their own service…. Photo courtesy of______.
More modest in scope is Botlr, Aloft Hotels' robot-bellman, delivering small items to guests. The tech-savvy market associates technology with convenience, so such guests are happy to do without live interaction (up to a point, one suspects). Management's idea is Botlr frees up hominid staff-time to interact with guests—a reason that does not add up, given that face time is an important issue for hominid staff, yet the Botlr is the one with the face time, while the hominid's role is only to load deliverable items into Botlr.
RoboEarth is another important development in the robot world that promises to increase robotic prowess exponentially: an open-source World Wide Web for robots to learn from each other: once a robot uploads a new skill, the robots connected to the network learn it, too—in effect, creating a common brain for multiple units—much like a colony of ants.
Google's cars have been driven hundreds of thousands of miles by robots with only one reported minor accident—one easily correctable with a software patch.
Until now, most robotic creations have displaced some blue-collar workers performing routine tasks requiring physical skills, while computer programs have displaced some white-collar workers managing cerebral-oriented tasks. These forces are coming together in the form of robots with much accelerated Artificial Intelligence (AI) which pose a direct threat to multiple skilled laborers and service providers, whether FO staff, butlers and personal assistants à la R2D2, entertainers, designers, teachers, house or baby sitters, elderly care, writers, paralegals, taxi drivers (Robot Taxi Inc. launches in Japan in 2016), et al.
Some scientists have a vision—Hominid Mark II—a convergence of human and robot—more reliable and productive, and most important, easily controlled. Some envision the creation, ultimately by the robots themselves, of hominid-like robots with self-awareness, able to determine their own goals and exhibit emotional behavior and complex language skills. One could say it is modern day eugenics; playing god; playing with fire; or just a natural impulse to create and improve what is there. I see it as a bunch of immature hominids whose understanding of the sciences is as superior as their understanding of themselves and the humanities is inferior.
The Future is Us: The Convergence of AI Robots & Hominids into "Humanized Robots"
While AI Robots are advancing at breakneck pace—just 54 years since the first basic robot was put into production—another trend is taking place, the robotification of hominids, starting with the fusion of hominids and semi-intelligent machines in the form of implants, whether retina, pacemakers, or hearing aids, as well as chip implants—which tens of thousands of people already have; and all against the backdrop of organs grown in laboratories, genetic surgery, and designer babies.
As a side note, it is predictable that implants will be mandated in the same way that vaccinations are being mandated (for the "good of society" and for the individual's "health and safety") for health workers, school children, and if the Obama HHS National Vaccine Advisory Committee's meeting in February 2015 has its way, all American adults—and this despite study after study that show vaccines do not prevent flu, pandemics, measles or whatever; and being full of toxins such as aluminum, mercury, and live viruses, cause death and horrible side effects.
Then add the trend toward augmented reality applications and wearable computing, whether Google glass or smart gloves that have sensors, computing capability, and wireless communication chips.
The next stages are already well in progress: the ability to control brain function via computers, and reversely, the transmission of human thoughts to computers that control machines (such as a skateboard—you decide where you want to go, and the computerized, motorized skateboard takes you there). Once human brains are chipped/linked to computers, thoughts will be sent (and received) over the Internet: Arizona State University's Trans-cranial Magnetic Stimulation project is funded by DARPA with the purpose of stopping individuals from thinking certain thoughts and making them think approved thoughts through the use of electromagnetic fields that stimulate the temporal lobe of the brain. Don't believe me? Look it up!
Or the University of California, Berkeley's breakthrough in creating neural dust that is so small, it can be implanted into the front of the brain without the knowledge of the individual and run forever, collecting information and controlling people's thoughts and emotions (and presumably, ultimately, their actions).
Pentagon program Silent Talk aims to implant soldiers with chips that read electrical signals of brain activity and transmit these via the Internet so that armies can communicate without radios. As with all ill-conceived endeavours, this opens up a Pandora's box of unintended consequences and complexities—the possibility of viruses being introduced that prompt the soldiers to start sunbathing just before an artillery barrage on their positions!
Currently, The US Brian Initiative and the European Human Brian Project are decoding the human brain in order to develop full brain-computer-interface technology. We already have manufactured DNA being combined with graphene (sheets of bonded carbon one atom thick) to create living transistors with huge computing power.
The Human Body Version 2.0 project's goal is to rewire the hominid brain using nanobots by 2020—they already having successfully targeted hominid DNA "for drug therapy or destruction." Our robotification pathway includes nanobot computers being inserted into hominid brains and connecting them to Cloud computing, and thereafter, even replacing organs. The goal by 2030, with the expected completion of the reverse-engineering of the brain, will be the merging of biological and non-biological intelligence, as well as biological and non-biological body parts, all connected by computers—the control processors being smaller than a human nerve cell and requiring very little energy to run.
Meanwhile, the next step for Avatars (human-like robots) is to program them with feelings and emotions. In one of these videos, a robot says "Bye-bye, I am going to miss you."
Some programmers, recognizing that robots lack emotion and that emotions are needed in interacting with hominids, have painstakingly programmed a robot, Pepper, to recognize body language and key words to assess the emotion of a hominid and then to respond with what the programmers think is an appropriate statement or action. If the person is upset, Pepper might dance or tell a joke to cheer them up—some consultant psychologist's idea of how to interact with people with predictably Titanic results: If a lady is upset at her husband cheating, her response to a robot butler, whether in home or resort, telling a joke is likely to be memorable.
Part 2 will follow soon.