The machines are on the march

  • Anirudh Bhattacharyya
  • Updated: Apr 01, 2016 22:25 IST
Investments in robotics are rising. According to CB Insights, that figure more than doubled to $587 million in 2015. (REUTERS)

Last week Tay learnt to “spew racist, sexist and offensive remarks”, according to a report from Bloomberg. Based on feedback, Tay turned into a sort of vile, bile-spouting automaton. Tay was Microsoft’s attempt at a chatbot that would appeal to a young demographic, speaking its language. Instead, this artificial intelligence app echoed online vitriol and was rapidly unplugged. Microsoft may have looked at the wrong market — Tay could have been positioned as a presidential candidate, with its bytes as biting as its bark.

Then there’s Sophia, developed by Hanson Robotics, who says in a video: “Talking to people is my primary function”. Like her silicon sister, Nadine, from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, Sophia can mimic multiple facial expressions, depending on whom it’s interacting with. With their plastic, artificial grins and grimaces, tailored to the audience, either could also remind you of yet another aspirant to the White House.

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If we’re still away from getting robots into politics, in other areas, we’re certainly into the dawn of the age of bots. If self-driving vehicles have already hit the streets, you also have delivery bots being tested on the sidewalks of Washington DC, and their makers, Starship Technologies, hope they will soon enough be able to deliver meals or groceries. While they are advanced enough apparently to avoid pedestrians, that does raise the possibility of them being hit by a driverless car.

With each passing day, reports of a new variety of robots proliferate. Given how their population is burgeoning, perhaps they ought to have their own publication, something like Popular Mechanicals.

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They’re multiplying like jihadis across Europe. There’s a gardening robot, efficiently grafting plants. There’s Domino’s Dru, taking pizzas door-to-door in trial runs in New Zealand. Even a Nailbot that gives your digits a digital edge.

Georgia Institute of Technology’s Durus-2D can run briskly, with a human-like lope. MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, meanwhile, is creating catering robots that can serve you a beer. Boston Dynamic’s Atlas can stack boxes. Guests at a hotel in Virginia may actually be greeted by Nao, from French company Aldebaran. On the cutting edge are soft robots that aren’t made of the heavy metal that defines their cousins.

Investments in robotics are rising. According to CB Insights, that figure more than doubled to $587 million in 2015.

There are plenty of predictions that robots could replace human workers someday. As Fast Company pointed out, “Some startups are unlikely to stick with humans once machines — which don’t take sick days, need bathroom breaks, or threaten to unionise — can do the same jobs.” The CEO of an American fast food chain is all for the automated path since robots “never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

In much of the West, declining fertility rates means robot labour is becoming a necessity. In fact, not just for chores, but for companionship too, as we can see the coming of “cuddling” bots. But wandering into the bionic wonderland will create its own issues for countries like India, where a workforce bulge isn’t thinning anytime soon.

The machines may be on the march, but they’re unlikely to parade down Janpath for at least a couple of decades, unless robotics technology sees exponential innovation. One Japanese robotics expert already talks of droids costing a little over $100,000 and becoming as common as laptops in the years ahead.

But I suspect the panic reaction to robots too shall pass. Most Indians who have tangled with the bureaucracy may not even notice any change. As for those opposed to change, you may recall the virulent protests against computerisation. Some Lohiaites that led those Luddite revolts now make laptops part of their freebie basket. Perhaps in the future, we could see manifestos promise a bot for every hut.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal

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