After spending time with Nao (Softbank robotics) in February I am not in the slightest bit surprised at one of his many skills is the ability to write any word asked, and spell the word as he writes. Through speech recognition programming, the robot is able to perform many tasks, but the one of writing is a profound tool that can help those with literacy skill deficiencies, and of course those wanting to learn a language. Another interesting feature that will support my current research.
Automation: friend or foe?
The debate regarding automation is becoming increasingly charged as technology progressively continues to permeate ever-increasing sectors of society. While on the one hand users scoff at self-check out tills in supermarkets, I’m not entirely convinced that shop assistants in the UK can offer a better service. Reflecting back on a recent trip I have felt even more alienated as the people “serving” me look utterly perplexed when they are challenged to engage in conversation other than stating the price and asking which method of payment I would like to use. I usually leave the till disappointed and question whether a robot would in fact be capable of offering me better customer service because it would be programmed to do so.
A recent white paper published by the Association for Advancing Automation (www.a3automate.org, April 2017), puts forward several arguments regarding career sustainability and changing job titles as tasks evolve and shift more heavily towards automation. Automation is nothing new, society has been relying on machines as early back as the industrial revolution, what is new however is the way that society needs to adapt and implement the appropriate changes as the skills required to support the technological advances that evolve.
Many argue that robots will deprive many manual labour workers of their employment opportunities; I however would argue very differently and believe that there is room for both manual and automated labour. Unimate, the industrial robot designed by General Motors in 1961 was considered a welcome relief from the heavy duty lifting and welding work that was deemed unpleasant and dangerous by blue-collar workers that had previously carried it out. In today’s society many of the most advanced robots continue to be those designed for industrial purposes as automation seems to provide an attractive technological solution to increasing labour costs in societies like China, South Korea and Japan where there is still a strong emphasis on production. Many in fact see a clear correlation between automation and manufacturing and claim it could save the manufacturing industry in China.
Robots have also had a considerable impact on white-collar jobs or knowledge workers. Robots that replace white-collar workers have weaved their way into society in many contexts. In some societies, autonomous humanoid robots are already replacing shop assistants and bank tellers, which demonstrates the societal changes and trends towards the use of robots to replace human workers in white-collar jobs. While the predicted abundance of robots in society and the effect they will have on the human labour force in white-collar jobs is perceived as a threat by many, I do not share the same view. Automated machines have been integrated into our lives without a second thought, providing quick solutions in many contexts. Long gone are the days of queuing at the bank during banking hours to withdraw cash, or queuing to buy a train ticket. These machines are considered unobtrusive and their existence is not challenged yet they are replacing white-collar workers. When the machine takes on a humanoid form however, the convenience is often perceived as a threat. Maybe this is due to lack of confidence in humans to believe they are able to carry out a task as efficiently as a robot, and to return to the beginning of this post, maybe that explains the increasing lack of apparent customer service skills nowadays.
20 years ago we could never have imagined the impact of digital technologies on society. Maybe we need to embrace the automation age and consider the opportunities for career prospects as the rise for new careers and industries based around automation continue to grow. Instead of creating skills gap perhaps we should consider training options that embrace automation and the changes it has created in our society, irrespective of the sector we work in. Research and development investment in technology will continue, and this includes automation. I prefer to be making the necessary changes to be prepared for what is next to come, and to be served by humanoid robot shop assistants that are guaranteed to smile and be courteous to ask if everything is okay and if I would like any further help, but that is just me personally..
From CALL, to ICALL, to MALL, to RALL, oh how we’ve moved on!
The pioneering drill and practice CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning) computer programmes that dominated the style of learning in the 60’s and 70’s has witnessed many changes. The 1980’s brought about the first radical change in the form of ICALL (Intelligent Computer Assisted Language Learning), where NLP (Natural Language Processing) help computers understand the structure of human language in order to be able to generate it from a computational data structure.
Dramatic shifts in our electronic environment has resulted in mobile technology navigating our learning environment and MALL (Mobile Assisted Language Learning) is becoming ever more popular as educators incorporate smartphones and tablets into their teaching practice. This form of mobile technology also extends to RALL (Robot Assisted Language Learning).
Humanoid robots are already being used for educational purposes and language learning in the US, Japan, and Korea. Japan and the US are using robots as peer tutors, while Korea is using them as teaching assistants and “friends” to generate motivation and increase learning achievement. In the US and Korea the robots use visual instructional materials while in Japan the interaction is gesture and voice-based. Unsurprisingly, RALL is already in full swing in Korea. iRobiQ is an example of an anthropomorphized robot which has been developed with a face, and a tablet interface attached to its chest like Pepper. The advantage of iRobiQ is the emphasis on education and language learning, whereas Pepper has been created for companionship.
So just how long will it be before we start hanging out with humanoid robots in our staff rooms and teaching institutions I wonder?!
Selfishly this week I have been trying to sneak humanoid robots into every aspect of my teaching. I am totally smitten with them, so I am reading extensively on the subject.
One topic of discussion that naturally arose from some of the conversations I had with my students, was that of companion robots. In Japan, companion robots are filling many social gaps, the primary one being that of the increasing ageing population with a constant soaring demographic.
Other kinds of hope robots can offer in the spectrum of companionship is that of pets, like PARO the fluffy baby seal. PARO is marketed as a therapeutic robot, who claims to reduce stress and improve relationships between patients and their caregivers. Other pets include AIBO the robot dog, created by Sony in 1999. Perfect pet solutions without the maintenance a domestic pet requires.
Perhaps the most intriguing king of companionship robots can offer, is that of romantic companionship. Long gone are the days of computers waiting for humans to provide a sense of significance, the humanoid robots of today are able to meet our gaze, track our motions, speak to us and recognise us. While for some this immediately raises issues of ethics, for others, robots could provide all the comforts of companionship without the obligation of commitment, or the perfect partner that is there when you want them but that can be switch off! Pepper is the first humanoid robot to be adopted in Japanese households, and you can read more about Pepper here
My first encounter with bioengineered or biorobotic androids was back in 1992, courtesy of Ridley Scott’s replicants in Blade Runner.
Today, with the avalanche of digital learning platforms, apps, AI, VR, and AR, we are being flooded with practices of imitation learning while at the same time adaptive learning seeks to personalise learning experiences.
Neural computation has been written about and researched since the 1940’s, and I was reminded of these technological advances on a recent trip to Japan, birthplace of Honda’s infamous Asimo.
Can robots really replace humans, and in what capacity? Is it possible to perfectly clone the human biological neural network with artificial neural networks or neurodes? If so, to what extend, and what place do humanoid robots have in society? How will this affect teaching and learning and in which contexts? These are questions that I am going to research this year, so I will be sharing my ideas here.
In the meantime, it’s Happy New Year from me and Happy New Year from Pepper.