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March of the robots

June 22, 2016

AI and Robotics continue to fascinate and amaze – and cause concern. We commented in February on Richard and Daniel Susskind’s work on the Future of the Professions, and recent news continues to reinforce their thesis.

Manufacturing has long been home to specialised robots, but the rate at which workers are being displaced is increasing. In China, Apple’s key supplier Foxconn is replacing 60,000 workers with robots at its manufacturing hub, in Kunshan, Jiangsu province, cutting its workforce from 110,000 down to 50,000. Thirty five companies in the region spent a total of 4 billion yuan on artificial intelligence last year. Some commentators worry that these mass layoffs will cause further social unrest in China.

Home robots began with vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers, and these areas continue to advance:  Dyson’s 360eye has 360° vision and can tell where it has yet to clean. But now the idea of robots as companions is advancing. Asus’s Zenbo is a voice-controlled companion, whose touchscreen face shows its emotions, can entertain kids and control the lights.

zenbo

© Ritchie Tongo/EPA

Priced at $599, it can help seniors enjoy a connected digital life and safeguard their health and well-being, be a fun and educational playmate for children, and a household helper. Zenbo can connect to and control many smart home and traditional devices. The company also launched ‘Zenbo Developer Program,’ an ecosystem aimed at developers that covers various domains, namely education, entertainment, healthcare, convenient living and smart home.

Softbank is testing Pepper, a personal companion robot.

Even more humanoid and running on wheels, Pepper claims to be able to read emotions (not just emoticons!) and be able adapt his behaviour accordingly.  It is being trialled in 140 SoftBank Mobile stores in Japan

softbank-pepper-robot-shop-store-staff-humanoid-1

The whole area of elderly care is ripe for robots of this kind, including soft ones as the FT reports. Professor Nadia Thalmann at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore has built “Nadine”, a very lifelike humanoid robot that can recognise people and starts up conversations based on previous chats.  We may not be ready for this just yet, as several newspapers called her (sic) “creepy”, but Nadine is probably the first of many.  Japan is very advanced in this field: Dinsow for example has made a real impact, cheering up an 84-year old care home resident. Are there ethical and moral issues in here that we need to consider?

Google has also unveiled a personal assistant it says will let people control their homes, book movies, search the internet, ask follow-up questions about an Italian restaurant and sort through dog pictures using voice commands. Google Assistant’s main physical form is a small, white, buttonless speaker called Google Home.

So what will be left for people to do? The Bank of England predicts that up to 15 million jobs are at risk of automation across the UK economy including professions such as law and accountancy. In response Kenneth Baker’s Edge Foundation is calling for radical action to prepare young people for through education to develop skills that robots cannot easily replace – flexibility, empathy, creativity and enterprise.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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