Monday, 8 December 2014
Friday, 5 December 2014
“Companies,” says web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, “are increasingly going to be run by computers. And computers are getting smarter and we are not.” The only solution, he argues, is for people to embrace new technology, and accept that some jobs will simply disappear.
So what does that mean for book-keepers and accountants and a host of jobs, increasingly the white collar ones too, that are threatened by the growth of new technology? What was once a Luddite argument about loss of jobs is being made by an increasing number of sophisticated economists. “It’s been running forever and yes there’s a problem that say, people who run printers that print brochures, for instance, you don’t need that any more,” says Sir Tim, talking about the inexorable move of advertising to online. “Some things are going to completely disappear and obviously more boring jobs go first.
Unfortunately, it often sounds as though the best ideas are those with the least human involvement: “Don’t think about me using my data, think about a really smart really powerful computer using my data with some interesting apps,” says Sir Tim. “My machine talking to a hospital, saying ‘I don’t know if you know but he’s not doing so much exercise - is that ok?’”
It’s an idyllic picture, even if critics will say walks should be about looking at the scenery not the GPS: a world where people are fitter and less troubled by menial jobs, thanks to the web’s total integration with daily life. “But there’s another movement that’s interesting,” adds Sir Tim. “If you look around the UK it’s largely farmland – some countries have been levelled for large fields, but in other parts of the world people are hanging on to small farms, because they like to have a world in which crops are grown locally by hand, again around Massachusetts for instance. You might start to think of farming more like performance art, where you know the person who has done it.”
Wednesday, 3 December 2014
As the sun set on a warm November afternoon, a quartet of five-foot-tall, 300-pound shiny white robots patrolled in front of Building 1 on Microsoft’s Silicon Valley campus. Looking like a crew of slick Daleks imbued with the grace of Fred Astaire, they whirred quietly across the concrete in different directions, stopping and turning in place so as to avoid running into trash cans, walls, and other obstacles.
The robots managed to appear both cute and intimidating. This friendly-but-not-too-friendly presence is meant to serve them well in jobs like monitoring corporate and college campuses, shopping malls, and schools.
“This takes away the monotonous and sometimes dangerous work, and leaves the strategic work to law enforcement or private security, depending on the application,” Knightscope cofounder and vice president of sales and marketing Stacy Stephens said as a K5 glided nearby.
Knightscope is one of a growing number of companies using robots to help with work traditionally done by humans, or perhaps replace them altogether. The trend is accelerating as robots are made ever smarter, more agile, and more adaptable to specific tasks. And while most robots do assembly-line work, Knightscope is one of a few companies betting that they could take on other tasks.
Knightscope may not outright replace many security guards soon—over a million of them were employed in the U.S. last year, according to an estimate from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the estimated hourly wage these guards earned was more than twice the $6.25 that Knightscope says it will charge for its robots, which could tempt some companies and schools to at least try them out.
It may seem hard to imagine that this robot, with its ridiculous balloon-shaped head and a tablet computer strapped to the front, might possibly mean the difference between life and death.
Yet if you were elderly and unwell, or recovering from a serious operation, it just might. The robot is designed to work with you to share certain information – such as your heart rate, eating habits and even whether you have taken your medication – with your family, doctor and other carers. It can summon help if it notes unusual behaviour. And in extreme situations – say if you had a heart attack or stroke – it is planned that future models could even take control of the situation.
As part of their research for the European FP7 programme, researchers at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory were, according to project leader Dr Praminda Caleb-Solly, “exploring embodiments” – an important part of how to make the domestic care robot’s interface more friendly for older adults who might not feel comfortable with technology.
“Mobiserv” was a European research project on smart technology that ran from 2009 to 2013. The aim was to develop robots, smart clothing, activity recognition systems and even smart medicine bottles to assist older people to maintain active, independent lives.
“What we found is that people want to be able to customise and personalise the robot by such means as changing the way it speaks, for instance giving it a cheeky character, making it hum while working and even giving it a smell,” says Caleb-Solly. But she says the negative portrayal of robots in popular culture is a problem –people may simply be alarmed by robo-helpers. “For example if you suddenly found the robot by the side of your bed in the night because you’d had a heart attack, demonstrating some degree of intelligence and taking control when you are not able to.” With more field-testing Caleb-Solly and her team hope to fine tune the robot to optimise their usefulness around the house in a range of situations.
A company specialising in artificial intelligence has developed an emotion-sensing virtual assistant called Amelia, who may start taking over from humans in a wide range of low-level jobs. Amelia was developed by IPsoft with the intention of taking over boring, repetitive tasks so that people can be freed up to focus on higher-level creative work.
The technology - which is based on research that mapped the way the human brain works - is already being trailed in IT help desks, financial trading operations support and invoice processing environments.
IPsoft insists that Amelia is not a virtual assistant in the way that Apple's Siri is. "She represents a major leap forward in artificial intelligence," says Parit Patel, Senior Solutions Architect. "Amelia is as flexible as a human because of her ability to understand the meaning of what is being communicated. She understands concepts, context and implications while most other systems are 'blind' to the underlying meaning," he adds.
Speaking from the lakefront family home south of Zurich, which Pierre first found while jogging, his widow told me about the man she knew for 32 years and now faces life without. With Alexander, 19, starting university and their daughter Laura, 21, studying in Cambridge, the couple were beginning a new phase of life and had recently been on holiday to Biarritz. Pierre surfed a lot there but was still putting in around six hours of work a day.
His job as chief financial officer was demanding. “Usually he had seven hours’ sleep and the rest of the time it was BlackBerry in one hand, laptop in the other. We weren’t necessarily happy that he was sacrificing family time for work but we respected his decision because it was not profit-orientated. He had a long-term ambition to make the company better.”
Fabienne is speaking now because she is unhappy with how her husband’s death has been investigated. She recounts that on the eve of his suicide Pierre was with his cousin. “I’m going to say something that sounds hysterical but he had just renewed his transport pass for the whole of 2014. Pierre dropped his shirts to the dry-cleaner on Saturday. On the Sunday evening we talked about my returning because Alexander was doing well, and then four hours later he hanged himself. I cannot reconcile that.”
Today, Fabienne speaks of the dangers of a money-driven approach. “How sustainable is profit for profit’s sake? In the banking industry, for instance,
I think we have seen that if you lose a human ethos you make huge wins in the short term and terribly bad losses in the long term. Not only in terms of people’s lives and the social fabric around the industry; even in terms of results expressed in dollars. Cost-benefit analysis should not be the only way a corporation looks at ethics.”