Robots, a welcome helper or an existential threat?

Jon Markman

They have done it again.  Boston Dynamics just released another terrifying video of a bipedal robot.

Somebody really needs to tell the industrial robot designer the way to public hearts and minds in the new Gilded Age – and wider acceptance – is less Terminator and more cute and cuddly.

The truth is we’re OK with a lot of robots, which is good because the coming boom of prosperity and better living is going to feature millions of them.

Software based assistants made their debut on smartphones years ago and have recently migrated to appliances like the well-received Amazon Echo. The Zenbo by Asus has also been a big hit.

From software based assistants to robots that think

The diminutive gizmo gets its smarts and a cherry disposition from software that learns over time. It has a body with an iPad-like monitor for a head, a chrome neck and a beach ball-sized torso with two large wheels. Zenbo looks like a robot version of E.T., The Extra Terrestrial. Image recognition software, a microphone and speaker system allow it to see, hear, talk and scoot around without being threatening. Zenbo, for lack of a better description, is cute.

Don’t dismiss the importance of cuteness. People are rightfully very threatened by robots. They perceive them as an existential threat.

Foxconn, the Chinese contractor best known for building iPhones, announced last year it was replacing 60,000 workers with robots. Amazon promised a modern and worker friendly environment when it purchased robotics firm Kiva Systems in 2012. Now the suitcase-sized robots zip along warehouse floors moving entire stacks of products while humans frantically pick items from their shelves to fulfill orders.

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And that brings us back to Boston Dynamics. Its latest robot is the evolution of its 160-pound robotic dog. As if the very idea of that was not terrifying enough, the company replaced its articulated rear feet with wheels. This allows the mechanical canine to carry heavy loads with a small footprint. It also allows it to move at very high rates of speed and to jump. And that is just the hardware.

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All Boston Dynamics robots think. They come with AI software that allows them to reason and control their movement. Even the developing engineers believe this combination is “nightmare inducing”.

This is the opposite of Zenbo. The little semi-autonomous robot is a welcome helper in our increasingly stressful lives. It can read recipes, play interactive games with children and stay in touch with aging parents using voice commands.

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At their core, modern robots are thin clients. The moving bits are just nondescript electric motors and injected plastic controlled natively by a relatively light processor. The brains of the robots are located in the cloud where bespoke algorithms and powerful computers help them learn.

That only adds to people’s worry.

Robots are a product of the New Gilded Age. There is no doubt. They’re coming in large numbers to homes, care facilities and factory floors.

Best wishes,

Jon Markman

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