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by Mark McLaughlin
17 April 2018
March of the robots: how artificial intelligence can enhance our lives

March of the robots: how artificial intelligence can enhance our lives

Robots - Image credit: Holyrood

The death of Stephen Hawking has robbed the world of one of its greatest minds – an intellect that would have been locked away and extinguished much sooner had he been born a generation earlier.

The severely disabled scientist was one of the greatest beneficiaries, and also one of the most outspoken cautionary voices, of automation and artificial intelligence.

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” said Hawking in 2014, ironically through a speech synthesiser that used machine learning to anticipate how the professor thought and suggested words he might want to use next.

Full artificial intelligence is likely to emerge from a more advanced version of this machine learning, which encourages computers to use something akin to intuition to advance beyond their basic programming.

It’s a potentially dangerous endeavour if it is developed unchecked. A thinking machine with a superior intellect could take a dim view of its inferior creators, as hundreds of sci-fi movies have warned.

Thankfully, the apocalyptic age of Skynet is expected to remain science fiction for at least a generation.

“Maybe it will happen one day, but we will be long gone,” says Professor David Lane, of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, a partnership between Heriot-Watt University and Edinburgh University.

“An AI at that level is a long, long way off for a number of reasons, including the limits to the number of transistors you can fit on a chip and the complexity of the computational infrastructure.

“We’re not even close to building a computer with the computational power of our brains, and we’re reaching the limits of what we can do with semiconductors.”

This will be music to the ears of politicians and trade unions who fear workers will be trampled in the march of the robots.

‘Robots threaten jobs’ was the dystopian title of a seminar at the Unite conference in Blackpool in January.

UNISON’s national executive council recently highlighted studies which predict that between 25 and 40 per cent of current UK jobs could be lost to automation and digitisation, including 250,000 job losses from the public-sector employers that UNISON represents.

In a recent parliamentary exchange, Conservative MSP Bill Bowman warned robots will add to the already dire unemployment figures in Dundee, Nationalist Ivan McKee said self-driving vehicles could have an impact on nearly every public-sector workforce.

And Labour’s Jackie Baillie raised “understandable concerns” about the 230,000 Scottish jobs identified as being at risk from automation by the ‘Cities Outlook 2018’ report.

Nationalist Kenny Gibson caused the greatest alarm by quoting Hawking and would-be Martian Elon Musk’s assertion that AI could be “as big a threat to humanity as climate change or nuclear war”, before dismissing these claims as “alarmist”.

Every discussion on the impact of artificial intelligence must therefore be accompanied by a reassurance – to borrow a phrase from another intelligent being – that it will not lead to a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction.

Lane said: “Every technological revolution, from looms to cars to computers, has met with resistance.

“Luddites smashed the looms because they didn’t want them to take their jobs, and motorcars used to require a guy with a red flag walking in front of them to alert people.

“If you plot a graph of unemployment over the last 100 years or so, the dips in employment don’t correlate with the introduction of technology, it correlates with financial events like the Wall Street crash.

“What does happen is that people’s jobs change, so as a result of computers, you maybe have three jobs for every job that has been taken away, but they’re different jobs.

“When self-driving cars come along, some taxi drivers won’t have a job anymore, which is a problem because in that instant, those people will lose their job.

“But librarians lost their jobs when computers came along, and the guys that polished the saddles of the horses lost their jobs when the cars came along.”

Many doom-mongers thought their worst fears had been realised last month when a 49-year-old woman was killed by a self-driving Uber car as she crossed the street in Tempe, Arizona.

But in a country where around 3,000 people die on the road every month in incidents caused by cars driven by humans, one death by a self-driving car should not be a cause for alarm.

Lane said: “In the recent fatality, I understand she came out from the side and the sensors didn’t see her and the car swerved to avoid her, but she walked out in a situation where even a human couldn’t see her.

“The software is very rigorously tested and the safeguards are written into the software, and usually there is a big red button somewhere where you can stop the self-driving mode.”

Unsurprisingly, Lane is optimistic about the future of robotics and its ability to complement – and not replace – the existing workforce in areas where Scotland has skills gaps, such as the care sector.

“There aren’t enough carers and they don’t have enough time to spend with people,” he says.

“They’re in for five minutes and then they’re out again, and it’s not really providing the kind of support that people need either in terms of companionship or in some cases, the physical support they need to move around or have things brought to them around the house, and robotics can help with both of those.

“At one level, it could be a pet that does cute things. People with dementia have a different view of the world, and that can be quite reassuring, or there can be systems which have a limited amount of dialogue that can chat to them.

“Studies have shown that people with dementia sometimes prefer the robot to people, because people with dementia often ask the same question over again and even the best carers, with the best will in the world, can get frustrated if they are tired or something, whereas robots never do that – they always give you a good answer.

“We’re working with a home in the south of England, and the residents are up for it. In this case, they’re fairly sprightly and open-minded and they want to have a go.

“I’ve been asked to take some robots to a care home in Biggar to try out the companionship mode.

“I don’t think the response is necessarily fear.

“When my mum had dementia, I asked if she wanted a robot, but she didn’t want it because she is from a generation that didn’t want technology, but I don’t think that is universal.

“There are plenty of people out there who want to have a go because they want to improve their quality of life.”

Heriot-Watt University is a leading contender for the Alexa Prize, Amazon’s annual $3.5m challenge to develop a computer that can have an interactive conversation just like a human.

“It’s about having an extended conversation, like HAL from 2001,” says Lane, choosing a rather ominous example.

“We upload a version of our chatbot every night, and right across the US, people who are using Alexa in their homes have the opportunity to assess the chatbot, have a conversation with it and give it a mark which is ranked every day on how each chatbot performs.

“We were the top team going into the final last year, and we went off to Seattle for the final, which involves conversations with media people who are trained in doing interviews.

“We’re back next year and we’re top of the rankings, which is a great credit to the team.”

Robots are also helping out in places where it would be too dangerous to send a human and have breathed new life into Scotland’s ailing oil industry by helping to develop the deep and perilous oil fields west of Shetland.

“We have developed autonomous ocean drones which we call AUVs [autonomous underwater vehicles],” says Lane.

“The current robots have an umbilical cable and a driver at the other end telling it what to do, but these are robots that go off on their own without a cable that can follow and inspect pipelines, work in deep water and do full surveys around all the oil wells and rises and other bits of kit on the seabed.

“Their impact is around safety, so [you] don’t need divers in the water, but just as importantly, it means you don’t necessarily need a ship, so it makes it cheaper and easier to do surveys, particularly in deep water.

“The argument that the oil industry is making is that they want to use more robotics offshore, because it helps with the skills issues, reduces risk, reduces cost, and helps with health and safety.”

Dr Alix Thom, workforce engagement and skills manager at Oil & Gas UK, said technology will continue to be very important to the industry.

“If it weren’t for developments in technology, we wouldn’t have been able to develop the fields west of Shetland, many of which were actually discovered 30 years ago,” she said.

“I know there has been a lot written that people are concerned that technology is going to remove thousands of jobs, but I think that remains to be seen.

“We have had smaller unmanned facilities for many years, particularly in the southern sector of the North Sea where it is not commercially viable to put a full-sized platform and accommodation, nor indeed is it a necessity.

“We see drones have had a huge impact on jobs where there is a higher than normal risk, for example, over the side working, and now they are starting to be used in confined spaces.

“But I certainly don’t see the march of the robots coming in the next two or three years.

“I do think technology will change the jobs that people will have in the future, but also, the way that older facilities are set up, you would need to think about how much can be introduced without significant development.

“Young people are still coming in to do technician apprenticeships and that scheme is still massively oversubscribed, so we are still attracting people to the sector.

“The offshore workforce makes up about ten per cent of all the jobs supported by the industry, and there hasn’t been a huge change in that ratio in the last ten years.

“AI can be applied across the board. Some jobs are certainly more open to AI development, but I don’t think it’s going to be something that will uniquely affect offshore.

“You can see AI being used in roles like data interpretation, for example.”

To those trying to hold back the march of the robots, the message appears to be ‘resistance is futile’.

Lane said: “The question is, how do we equip people with the skills they need so that they can have happy and productive lives as these technologies come along?

“One thing that is absolutely for sure is if you don’t adopt these technologies, we will all lose our jobs – that is the one thing that you can guarantee.

“Other countries who are investing in these technologies will take those jobs and manufacture the things that we are making more cheaply, more productively, more flexibly than we do and the business will go elsewhere.

“You will have an economy with less tax being paid into the Exchequer, making you less able to fund the skills training that you need to get people to adapt to the new ways of working.”

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