Eduvation Blog

Automation & AI

What follows is a selection of coverage from the Eduvation Insider this year focused on automation, robotics and AI…



Rise of the Machines

Increasingly-sophisticated automation is certainly helping to shape what the World Economic Forum has famously called the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”…


Humans Can’t Dance

Boston Dynamics (an MIT spin-off purchased by Hyundai last December) is continuing to refine the skills of its humanoid Atlas, canine Spot, and ostrich-like Handle robots, eventually intended for use in warehouse, policing and military occupations. (So far, Spot is the only one you can buy, if you have $75,000 US to spare.) Now, not only are they adept at navigating uneven terrain and climbing stairs, but they excel at parkour and outperform most humans at dancing. The incredibly fluid, coordinated and choreographed movements evident in their dance videos are truly impressive, and just a tad eerie. They can even adapt to human interference, from shoves to trips. With the right manipulator attached, Spot can open doors or load the dishwasher. For now, these BD robots won’t so much start taking human jobs, as augmenting human labour and taking on particularly dangerous tasks, like hostile reconnaissance, search and rescue, rocket-launch or nuclear inspections.  Popular Science  |  Wired


Police Canine Unit

Decades of dystopian sci-fi (from Terminator to I, Robot) have taught us that humanoid robots in particular are something to fear. Utilizing them in policing never ends well on the silver screen (consider the robots in Robocop). And while bomb squads have been using remote-controlled “robots” for years, adding robots to police departments in a year of backlash against police brutality and movements to defund police was probably just asking for trouble. Last August, the NYPD spent $94,000 to lease a BD Spot robot they called “Digidog,” and boasted that it was going to save lives of officers and the public. It was deployed in response to about a half-dozen home invasion, hostage and barricade situations. But in response to public discomfort, the NYPD cut the contract short and returned Spot in late April. The Mayor’s office was “glad the Digidog was put down.” The NYPD blamed politics and bad PR: “We should have named it ‘Lassie.’”  New York Times


Gigantic Gundam

A 60-foot, 55,000-pound metal monstrosity was tested in Yokohama Japan last August, and it managed to walk and kneel smoothly, if slowly. The robot-like, samurai-inspired mecha is part of a Gundam Factory amusement park, based on a popular animated Japanese sci-fi series from 1979.  Gundam Factory  |  Newsweek


Strangers with Candy

Forget impulse buying at the checkout line. Now, Mars Wrigley has started testing an autonomous robot, “Smiley,” that will follow you around the grocery store, using Lidar and sensors to avoid obstacles and shoppers. It gathers data about customer shopping habits while tempting them with candy. So far, it’s one test Smiley in a ShopRite store in Monroe, NY, but someday we may be relentlessly nagged to buy candy, not by our kids but by the candy rack itself.  Gizmodo


Robots in Research

Scientific researchers may think their jobs are secure from automation, but robots are coming to a lab near you! Chemists at uLiverpool have programmed a “robot scientist” who can conduct experiments 1,000 times faster than a human, for 21 hours each and every day, and even in complete darkness. (It just needs 3 hours to recharge.) So it can do several months of work in just a few days! Using AI, it can decide which experiments to conduct next, and has already discovered a new catalyst. “It’s a new superpowered team member, and it frees up time for the human researchers to think creatively.” Times Higher Ed


Accelerated by COVID19

The pandemic has introduced risk to interpersonal interactions, encouraging the adoption of touch-free checkouts and doors, web-based shopping and transactions, and more use of robots for long-term care homes and meat processing facilities alike. Europe’s biggest meat processor, Danish Crown, uses laser scanners and robotic production lines to process thousands of animals with minimal human intervention. US meat producers who have been able to stay operational despite COVID19 are also highly automated. Wired



Bots at Home

I confess, I have more than once considered buying a robotic pet for the kids, to sidestep the obstacle of allergies. I have tried a Roomba, and currently have 3 dozen smart home sensors, cameras, devices and interfaces. But so far I have none I would call a robot…


Aerial Surveillance

Last September, Amazon unveiled the flying “Ring Always Home” camera drone, which can autonomously surveil your home, capture footage and return to recharge in its dock. It’s supposedly loud enough to scare off burglars. If your home is already surveilled by a network of fixed webcams, this $250 drone may not seem particularly Owellian, but privacy advocates are concerned about Ring’s track record providing doorbell footage to law enforcement. Amazon’s “Sidewalk” project aims to network Ring and Echo devices throughout a neighbourhood, to provide smart security and help locate lost pets or valuables. They say this has “the potential to extend what was already an invasive surveillance system into the realm of the absurd.”  New York Times  |  Vox


“An internet connected drone camera for your home, owned by Amazon. this definitely won’t be a privacy nightmare *at all*.” Twitter user, cited by New York Times



The Future is Served

Last December, UK-based Moley Robotics finally released its fully automated kitchen, after 6 years of R&D and a tantalizing launch in Apr 2015. This bespoke home upgrade uses 2 robotic arms, sensors and optical cameras, integrated fridge, stove and dishwasher, and a range of customized appliances to replicate the work of master chefs from a catalogue of recipes. The system retrieves ingredients from cupboard and smart fridge, recreates preparation and cooking behind a protective screen, and even cleans up after itself, with extra disinfection provided by built-in UV lights. A premium configuration is available at $425,000 Cdn (apparently “comparable to high-end custom kitchens”), but over time is expected to become more affordable.  Moley



Synthetic Humans

I could guarantee that my newsletter winds up in your institution’s spam filter by exploring the rapidly-advancing “killer app” of robotics, sex robots. But there are significant advances affecting plenty of other service industries too…


Socially Intelligent Machines

Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics made headlines 5 years ago with its humanoid Sophia (granted citizenship by the Saudi Arabian government in 2017). Now, Hanson

plans to manufacture “thousands” of robots in 4 new models. Sophia’s AI supposedly allows her to express 50 emotions, process conversations and “emotional data.” Grace is designed for the healthcare sector, and Zeno for autism research. “Little Sophia” and “Professor Einstein” appear to be the “consumer” models announced so far. In a time of pandemic social distancing, robots have potential to replace close contact and social interaction in the healthcare, retail, education, and airline industries, says the manufacturer. Hyperbolically, their website also claims the robots “will evolve to become benevolent, super-intelligent living machines.” (Sheesh.)  HansonRobotics  |  Newsweek


Realistic Mutual Gaze

As robots become more and more lifelike, they approach the “uncanny valley” in which they become more terrifying, not less. Disney Research has been focusing on replicating subconscious human facial movements, eye blinks, saccades and other forms of attention habituation – the elements of “mutual gaze,” which provides key social and emotional cues (and perhaps explains part of Zoom fatigue). We don’t realize we’re doing it, but we sure notice it when it’s missing (as it is with Hanson Robotics’ Sophia). Disney is likely planning to integrate the technology into animatronic characters at its theme parks.  Gizmodo


Caregiver Bots

As populations age and workforce shortages loom, many OECD countries will consider robots as an inevitable solution. Along with telemedicine, caregiver robots can be deployed in hospitals and nursing homes to protect patients and residents from contagious disease. Japan, facing a projected shortfall of 380,000 care workers by 2025, has been an early adopter, with government awareness campaigns and substantial subsidies. Already, 26% of Japanese nursing homes report using robots, primarily to monitor patients and provide interaction, but also to assist with patient transfer, mobility, toileting, or bathing. Analysts have found that, rather than reducing employment, nursing homes with robots on staff actually have 3-8% more employees – although robot adoption seems to depress the wages of nurses and care workers.  World Economic Forum


Pandemic Popularity

uWaterloo researchers have found that the COVID19 pandemic is easing people’s resistance to robot companions: “In the absence of human contact, a social robot can, to some extent, act as a companion and reduce isolation.” Their survey of 102 Canadian adults found that openness to buying or using social robots has risen, particularly among those who report high levels of loneliness.  uWaterloo News


“Animals haven’t replaced people but instead have become powerful tools that enable us to work differently, whether by pulling our plows, going to space, or ensuring that our beer is delicious… Just as we’ve done with animals in the past, we’re at our best when we team up [with robots].”Kate Darling, in Wired



Labour Market Impact

Particularly as the world economy copes with a pandemic recession, and continuing need for social distancing and contact-free services, many worry about the labour market recovery post-COVID19…


Robot Job Apocalypse?

In February, McKinsey projected that 27% of the workforce will lose their jobs to automation by 2030 – but just 9% will have to find a new line of work. The rest will find their jobs changed by robots, but not destroyed. Machines will tackle the “boring, rote tasks” while people focus on “more human work.” ATMs didn’t displace bank employees, they sparked a proliferation of bank branches and the hiring of even more humans: “now machines count the money, and people sell you auto loans.” Automation in the 19th century replaced craftsmen, while automation in the 21st century is replacing low-skilled workers – but hopefully it will progress slowly enough that we can upskill and reskill them as we go. Already, 6% of American jobs are eliminated every 3 months by business closures or downsizing. The pace of the fourth industrial revolution is far slower.  Slate


Bot Employment Boom

The World Economic Forum takes an optimistic view of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, projecting that automation will take over “the drudgery of repetitive tasks and the danger of more perilous ones,” while freeing up humans for “interfacing with customers, developing better products, and yes, managing those robots themselves.” Historically, bookkeeping software grew employment for accountants, ATMs grew employment for bank tellers, and washing machines created manufacturing and laundromat jobs instead of jobs washing clothes. The WEF calculates that automation will add $1.2 trillion to US GDP by 2026, and generate 58M net new jobs. “Two-thirds of the jobs transformed by automation will become higher-skilled… That makes it imperative that we prepare people for higher-skilled jobs.” The US economy managed a similar retraining of displaced workers in the 1900s, as farming became mechanized, by introducing mandatory high school in agricultural states.  World Economic Forum



Robot Ethics

I’ve often argued that we are shutting down Philosophy departments just when we most need them, as algorithms and AIs need to be designed with ethics in mind…


Robots with Rights

Delivery bots like those from Starship, who has hundreds in use on 15 university campuses delivering meals to students and staff, now have sidewalk rights as “pedestrians” in jurisdictions like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Idaho, Florida and Wisconsin. FedEx, Amazon and others are testing aerial drones and ground-based delivery bots. Concerns and opposition are being expressed by city transportation officials, labour unions, and accessibility advocates. One wheelchair user at uPittsburgh complained when a bot partially blocked a curb ramp. (The software has since been updated to take such situations into account.)  Axios


Laws of Robotics

Fans of Isaac Asimov know well how the 3 laws of robotics embed an ethical code in automatons of his fictional universe, preventing them from doing harm to a human, or through inaction allowing them to come to harm. So far, major robotics firms like Boston Dynamics, ANYbotics, and Clearpath Robotics have focused on preventing misuse by vetting customers, avoiding military contracts, upholding safety regulations, and reserving the right to repossess leased units (or at least void the warranty) should they be used for violent or illegal purposes.  IEEE Spectrum


“All of our buyers, without exception, must agree that Spot will not be used to harm or intimidate people or animals, as a weapon or configured to hold a weapon.” – Robert PlayterBoston Dynamics



The Risk of Ethical Bots

Alan Winfield, a prof of Robot Ethics in the Bristol Robotics Lab (UK), argues that in fact “ethical robots might not be such a good idea after all.” If we hard-code ethical decision making in robots, there is a significant risk that those rules could be hacked: “both ethical and unethical behaviors require the same cognitive machinery with—in our implementation—only a subtle difference in the way a single value is calculated.” An unscrupulous manufacturer could embed unethical behaviours for financial gain. And “user-adjustable ethics settings” are probably always unwise. The responsibility for ethical robot behaviour lies not with the robot, but with humans: we require ethical governance, regulatory and legislative efforts.  IEEE Spectrum


“Considering the ethical, legal and societal implications of robots, it becomes obvious that robots themselves are not where responsibility lies… The responsibility to ensure they behave well must always lie with human beings.”Alan Winfield, Professor of Robot Ethics, Bristol Robotics Lab, U West England



That’s some of the latest thought-provoking robot news I’ve come across. There’s even more on the subject of AI, which I’ll try to tackle before too much longer!



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