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Robots

Amazon is the retail train that never stops running

Friday, 28 April, 2017 0 Comments

Profits at Amazon surged more than 40 percent, to $724 million, in the first three months of the year, Reuters reported last night. The growth was driven by web services and subscriptions, such as Amazon Prime, and the company highlighted its international expansion in India, Mexico and the UK.

Talking of the UK, Amazon will increase its British headcount to 24,000 when it adds 1,200 new jobs at warehouses equipped with advanced robotics. “The introduction of Amazon robotics in Warrington and Tilbury is the latest example of our commitment to invention in logistics on behalf of our employees and our customers,” Stefano Perego, director of UK customer fulfilment at Amazon UK, told The Guardian.

Talking of robots, Christian Schürch is a Swiss student of mechanical engineering and he had to make a toy train go in a circle as part of a project. He used a FANUC M-2iA/3S, which he says is “controlled by two languages Fanuc developed for themselves. The main language is called Teach Pendant and the other one, which I only used for a few programs, is called Karel.” The Luga Trade Fair opens today in Lucerne and Christian Schürch’s train will run and run and run there. A bit like Amazon, it is, really.


Handle with care

Thursday, 2 March, 2017 0 Comments

Watch out Segway tour guides, ballet dancers and parkour runners, Handle is coming for your job. Handle is the latest research robot from Boston Dynamics and the focus is on simplicity and efficiency: “Handle uses many of the same dynamics, balance and mobile manipulation principles found in the quadruped and biped robots we build, but with only about 10 actuated joints, it is significantly less complex. Wheels are efficient on flat surfaces while legs can go almost anywhere: by combining wheels and legs Handle can have the best of both worlds,” say the makers, who add that Handle has a range of 15 miles on one battery charge. Impressive. Cautionary.


Unplugging the thinking toaster

Friday, 24 February, 2017 0 Comments

Given that robots and automation will likely lead to many people losing their jobs, how should we deal with this upheaval? For Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, the answer is clear: tax the robots. In an interview with Quartz, Gates argues that taxing worker robots would offset job losses by funding training for work where humans are still needed, such as child and elderly care. Quote:

“And what the world wants is to take this opportunity to make all the goods and services we have today, and free up labor, let us do a better job of reaching out to the elderly, having smaller class sizes, helping kids with special needs. You know, all of those are things where human empathy and understanding are still very, very unique. And we still deal with an immense shortage of people to help out there.”

But, no taxation without representation, right? So, should the tax-paying robots have rights? What if progress in AI enables them to achieve consciousness in the future? When the machines are programmed to feel suffering and loss, will they be entitled to “humanoid rights” protection? Or should we prevent machines being programmed to suffer and therefore deny them rights, for the benefit of their human overlords? Here’s what Kurzgesagt, the Munich-based YouTube channel, says:


Man vs. Machine

Saturday, 21 January, 2017 0 Comments

“A good receptionist should have certain characteristics: helpful, friendly, organized. But do they need to be human?” That was the question posed in Davos, where the future of work was debated with an increasing intensity during the past few days. The elites will do fine in the robotic revolution but they could still lose their sinecures, and more, if those dispossessed of jobs and dignity rise up against their new overlords.

Michael Marczewski is a motion designer based in London and working at ManvsMachine. His “Vicious Cycle” clip, which features a group of autonomous robots performing a range of repetitive functions, is fitting for this post-Davos moment because it ponders what might happen if the demands become unbearable for the robots. The music is by Marcus Olsson, one half of Kungen & Hertigen, a sound team based in Stockholm and Eksjö. The other half is Staffan Gustafsson.


The human-robot workplace

Wednesday, 30 November, 2016 0 Comments

During the vital November + December sales season, Amazon expands its workforce by almost 40 percent. This means adding 120,000 temporary workers to its US warehouses alone. So how does it train them? Touch screens and robots, mainly. That’s what Laura Stevens of the Wall Street Journal says in “How Amazon Gets Its Holiday Hires Up to Speed in Two Days.”

“After taking an item off a robot-carried shelf at one of Amazon’s new warehouses, the worker scans it, and a light flashes to show which container to place it in to get it ready for shipping,” writes Stevens, and for those who claim that automation means the end of work, she adds this observation: “The newest warehouses, filled with robots, require a higher head count than older sites because the greater efficiency allows them to process even more orders, a task that still requires humans.”


Watching robots working

Thursday, 27 October, 2016 1 Comment

There is something satisfying, almost mesmerizing, in watching these robots working at the Komatsu Spring Industrial Company, which was established in 1941: “Since then we have worked consistently hard in the design and manufacture of springs, displaying developmental ingenuity to become one of the world leaders in the field of precision springs and playing a leading role in the precision mechanical equipment industry.” Japanese manufactuers, given the country’s demography, have no choice but to adapt.

The background music, which these robots love, is Sountrive – Goko Bane.


Teledildonics

Tuesday, 25 October, 2016 0 Comments

Note the dates: 19 and 20 December. That’s when attendees at The International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots will explore “robot emotions, personalities, humanoid robots, intelligent electronic sex hardware and entertainment robots.” The event is taking place in Goldsmiths, University of London, after it was was banned in Malaysia. Sessions will address Robot Emotions, Teledildonics, Robot Personalities, Intelligent Electronic Sex Hardware and related issues.

David Levy, conference general chair, chess champion and author of Love and Sex with Robots says: “I believe that loving sex robots will be a great boon to society.There are millions of people out there who, for one reason or another, cannot establish good relationships.” It should be noted, however, that a group of scientists called for a ban on sex robots last year and created the Campaign Against Sex Robots.

This is the 21st century, after all.


Robots: The Warehouse Workers of the Near Future

Thursday, 22 September, 2016 0 Comments

The story involves a logistics company and grocery empire run by a modest New England billionaire. Most people will be unfamiliar with Symbotic LLC and Rick Cohen and C&S Wholesale Grocers but they are at the forefront of a move to show that that robots can manage the storing, handling and hauling of goods that retailers deal with in vast amounts each year.

Fully Autonomous Robots: The Warehouse Workers of the Near Future by Robbie Whelan of the Wall Street Journal describes Cohen’s brave new vision: “His strategy has two prongs: Install robots in C&S warehouses to serve grocery chains, and sell them to companies that have their own distribution facilities. Over the next year, Symbotic plans to roll out nearly a dozen fully-automated food warehouses across the country from Pennsylvania to California, serving grocery chains.”

One of Symbotic’s selling points is what it calls “Capital Recovery”, which goes like this:

“Often companies find that an automation system optimizes their operations enough to justify combining two warehouses into one. Additionally, the capital they can recover from selling the second warehouse can offset the cost of the system. The capital recovery model allows customers to exceed their operational demands while recovering capital from unnecessary facilities and/or resources.”

Robbie Whelan points out that Rick Cohen’s success is driven by his fascination with fat — not of midriff variety, but of the administrative kind:

Mr. Cohen said he became interested in robotics because of a lifelong passion for cutting fat at his family business. His grandfather, Israel Cohen, founded C&S in Worcester, Mass., in 1918. Mr. Cohen became CEO in 1989 and is sole owner.

“Taking waste out is fascinating to me,” Mr. Cohen said. “I walk through a warehouse, and everyone sees what’s happening, and I see what’s not happening.”

Typically, the Daily Mail trashed Rick Cohen’s privacy when it published “Revealed, America’s most modest billionaire: Tycoon worth $11bn is so down-to-earth that neighbors don’t recognize him – on street where average home is $294,000.”


Robopocalyptic conflict in Westworld

Monday, 29 August, 2016 0 Comments

The second trailer for Westworld teases the robopocalyptic conflict between a futuristic theme park’s automata residents and their human keepers. The key figure in this clip is Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a frontier “host” who’s actually the park’s oldest resident, having been resurrected after countless “deaths” that she’s been programmed to forget.

In 1973, the late, great Michael Crichton wrote and directed Westworld, a science fiction western-thriller about amusement park androids that malfunction and begin killing visitors. With stories about job-stealing robots and fears of wayward artificial intelligence filling the news stream, HBO feels that what our world needs right now is an upgrade of Westworld. The story has been re-engineered for this young century and we’re expected to sympathize with the sentient bots enslaved by their scary creator, Dr Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). Westworld is tapping into the Zeitgeist as people are increasingly alarmed about a society that seems to be out of control, especially because of what information technology and the life sciences are making possible.


Future sex with gynoids and guynoids

Wednesday, 3 August, 2016 0 Comments

The word “gynoid” was used by Gwyneth Jones in her 1985 novel Divine Endurance to describe a female robot slave character in a futuristic China. Does this mean, then, that the male equivalent is a “guynoid”? Not quite. Gynoid is created from the Ancient Greek prefix gyno– (of or pertaining to women or the female reproductive system) + android, a Greek word used to refer to robotic humanoids regardless of gender. However, the Greek prefix “andr-” means man in the masculine sense and because of this android is used to describe male-styled robots. Given the established etymology, it’s going to be a battle to replace androids with guynoids.

All this is by way of saying that sex with robots is very much in the news. Let’s take three of today’s headlines, starting with The New Scientist. “Could sex robots and virtual reality treat paedophilia?The Daily Mirror is more of a mass-market publication: “Expert to publish ‘how to build your own sex robot’ handbook after Scarlett Johansson lookalike success,” while The South China Morning Post brings us back to the gynoid world of Gwyneth Jones: “Sex and robots: How mechanical dolls may press all the right buttons for lonesome guys.”

Actually, that last headline is quite topical in light of the work being done by Kathleen Richardson, a Senior Research Fellow in the Ethics of Robotics at De Montfort University in Leicester. Last September, she published a position paper titled “The Asymmetrical ‘Relationship’: Parallels Between Prostitution and the Development of Sex Robots.” Snippet:

“Following in the footsteps of ethical robot campaigns, I propose to launch a campaign against sex robots, so that issues in prostitution can be discussed more widely in the field of robotics. I have to tried to show how human lifeworlds of gender and sexuality are inflected in making of sex robots, and that these robots will contribute to gendered inequalities found in the sex industry.”

The debate about the gendering of robots and the sexualized personification of machines is on.

Ex Machina


When will the e-people be allowed to vote?

Monday, 27 June, 2016 0 Comments

On the surface, at least, the world was still in order on 31 May. Yes, it was World No Tobacco Day, but it’s been that since 1987 and smoking remains popular in many parts of the world. Change comes dropping slow, as the poet said. But quiet can be deceptive; it can lull us into a false sense of security and that’s why very few noticed a draft motion “with recommendations to the Commission on Civil Law Rules on Robotics” (PDF) drawn up by the European Parliament’s committee on legal affairs that was discussed on 31 May in Brussels. People should have paid more attention, however, because it is revolutionary.

No taxation without representation! That slogan led to violent change 250 years ago and what the European Parliament is asking the European Commission to do is equally radical. According to the draft motion, the commission should consider “that at least the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations, including that of making good any damage they may cause, and applying electronic personality to cases where robots make smart autonomous decisions or otherwise interact with third parties independently.” The motion also says organizations should have to declare any savings they make in social security contributions by using robotics instead of people, for tax purposes.

Robots voting On the face of it, then, while Europe’s robot workers would be classed as “electronic persons,” with rights and obligations, they would still be regarded as property (slaves?) and their owners subjected to additional taxes for having the initiative (temerity?) to deploy them. The realities of a new industrial revolution suggest that different thinking and terminology is needed.

Today, robots are being used in ever-greater numbers in factories and they are also taking on tasks such as personal care and cardiac surgery. The result is that all kinds of fears about unemployment, wealth inequality and alienation are being raised. The growing intelligence, pervasiveness and autonomy of robots demands a debate involving citizens, lawyers, accountants, ethicists and legislators. In the end, e-votes by e-people might play a decisive role in any referendum on these tectonic changes.