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AI will play a vital role in our future, just don't expect robot butlers

Column Artificial Intelligence is becoming more commonplace by the day
Fri Mar 14 2014, 15:37

Lee Bell column portrait ROBOTS have created quite a bit of noise in the technology industry this past week, from a Lego autobot that aims to solve a Rubik's Cube in record time, to computer powered ping pong playing machines and even "soft" robotic fish that replicate the movements of real sea life.

Come to think of it, the technology industry has been teeming with robot-related announcements over the past year or so, all of which have promoted the growth and development of the idea of artificial intelligence (AI), thus leading to the question: Is artificial intelligence an intrinsic part of our future, or is it just a gimmick?

The latter part of that question can be highlighted by reviewing the themes of most of the announcements in AI over the last year or so, with many developments carrying a more "fun" and perhaps less vital undertone, like Rapiro's programmable Raspberry Pi-powered humanoid robot that was unveiled at CES. It claimed to be able to perform everyday tasks such as tidying your desk, but still - with its 10-20 minute operating time - it is hardly going to change the world.

Rapiro is a Rasbperry Pi powered robot

Perhaps one of the most notable announcements over the past year, however, came in September, when chipmaker Intel told a crowd at its Intel Developer Forum (IDF) that 3D printed open source robots were on their way to "bridge the gap between technology and humanity".

The announcement was part of the firm's Twenty-first Century Robot initiative to "bring science fact to science fiction". It might have sounded like a sci-fi film gone terrifyingly wrong, but Intel futurist Brian David Johnson told the audience that by using 3D printing and open source hardware and software, Intel's somewhat crazy-sounding project would let anyone create robots and alter them and share them in online communities, enabling them to be 3D printed with varying designs in order to be "a smartphone equivalent of a robot".

Intel's 21st century robot project shown off at IDF designs - jimmy prototype

Intel hasn't said what these robots will be used for or why it thinks we all need them in our lives, but it does suggest that the firm sees such technology, and AI, as intrinsic to the future.

In January, it was reported that another huge technology company, Google, spent $400m to buy a London based AI company called Deepmind.

Deepmind said the partnership would allow it to turbo-charge its mission to harness the power of machine learning tools to "tackle some of society's toughest problems" and "help make our everyday lives more productive and enjoyable".

There's certainly an attitude that suggests that the technology industry, and society in general, deem AI of growing importance and a vital part of our future. And there are also plenty of manufacturers dabbling in such areas. Take for instance the work being done at Boston Dynamics, which has created some impressive droids that can replicate some specific elements of intelligent capabilities.

At Mobile World Congress in February, I spoke with Dr Kevin Curran, a technical expert at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), who told me that paper printers will soon become a thing of the past due to the rising popularity of cheaper tablets.

After hearing this grand claim, I was interested to hear what he had to say about artificial intelligence and whether he believed it will become a fundamental facet of human life or will merely continue to churn out less innovative robot gadgets that aren't really good for anything.

"The scope of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is huge," he said. "We tend to associate AI in its grandest form as a Humanoid Robot communicating with us as portrayed in movies such as Blade Runner.

"The truth is more mundane but shows that AI software is running underneath all sorts of modern technological tasks from autopilot to the magnificent gyroscope ability of Segways. Anywhere that 'fast fuzzy type' decisions needs to be made - there is some Artificial Intelligence involved."

Curran noted that there is a use to AI beyond the typical droid machine, which many people associate the term AI with all too easily.


"It is still hard to get the public to steer away from thinking solely of AI in Droids. Droids are basically Humanoid robots, which have human characteristics as opposed to say the robotic Rumba vacuum cleaner."

AI is used in droids to provide perception. This area includes computer vision as well as a great variety of other sensing modalities including taste, smell, sonar, IR, haptic feedback, tactile sensors, and range of motion sensors.

But although Curran notes that AI is used in robots in order to emulate some subset of the physical, cognitive and social dimensions of the human body and experience, the trend is already a facet of our everyday lives.

"A simple search on Google is basically putting AI to work. Language, speech, translation, and visual processing all rely on Machine Learning or AI," he said. "Many of the leading AI researchers all work for Google. It is becoming the place to go for machine learning researchers."

He told me that AI is only getting better, as computational intelligence techniques keep on improving, becoming more accurate and faster due to giant leaps in processor speeds.


"Humans doing tedious automated tasks have already become replaced. I see no reason why this trend will not continue."

So, if we take Curran's stance on AI and its already core place in our lives via everyday technology, we could then ask: "could artificial intelligence have a detrimental effect on our future?" I'll admit, it's a rather clichéd question, and one that invites many possible answers as well as further questions.

Bloomberg, for example, reported something along those lines this week, saying that automatons and smart computers are threatening to replace more than 700 occupations in the next two decades, which could equate to half the workforce in the US. But at the same time, it could be argued that AI and the robots that utilise it could make our lives simpler, and safer. Think to Google's self-driving cars, which Curran thinks will play an essential role in future transportation.

Google self-drive cars have now clocked up over 30000 miles

"I see the day when robotic cars will do our driving. I believe Artificial Intelligent driven cars can do a better job [and] Google are leading the field in this area," said Curran.

I would agree with Curran when he says we are far from AI in the form of servant droids being a standard facet in every home. It's such a ridiculous and overcliched vision regurgitated by popular culture that it's become a parody of itself. But at the same time, AI is important. And it is definitely here to stay, becoming more prolific and significant in society as technology advances.

What we can't quite put our finger on yet, however, is whether that will actually be for the better. µ


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