I confess I have a bit of a techie mentality. I paid for part of my university life through working tech support areas and software installation services at universities, as well as helping teach a few practical sessions with professionals upgrading their computer skills. And when I started working for government, a lot of what garnered early positive feedback was my computer skills. I’ve done programming too. But where I stop being a techie usually is when it moves from software to hardware. There I’m relatively lost. Yet when people talk about Artificial Intelligence, better use of data, and all those wonderful things that are more software-oriented, they omit the part that I think is really possible in the short-run. The physical hardware with some basic programming.
People are all excited in the industry about “smart cars”, but long before I get a smart car, can someone tell me why I don’t have a dumb robot yet?
I don’t mean those simple robots that are merely self-propelled vacuum cleaners nor the ones for kids that roll like BB-8 or respond to a couple of voice commands or are in the shape of a pet. I’m talking about a dumb, simple, repetitive-task performing robot.
There’s an article over at the Harvard Business Review blogs by Andrew Ng called What Artificial Intelligence Can and Can’t Do Right Now (link may expire) and I love it for the way it approaches what AI can do by comparing it to the way humans process things. Basically, the argument is that if our brain can figure out what to do in less than a second, then the number of variables are relatively small, there are discrete choices and outcomes, and thus you can automate the task to a machine. Basically machine and supervised learning to teach a machine how to do it.
What do I want in a dumb robot? Someone who can do things for me during the day that I don’t need to do myself. Let’s walk through a typical day and the things that I should be able to have already…
I start my day with my alarm clock beeping at me. No real need to automate that, the alarm clock does exactly what it should do, a tried and true technology. But what if I roll over, turn off the alarm, and accidentally fall back asleep. I don’t mean I hit snooze, I mean I turned off the alarm. Now there is no backup. No mental nudge to say stay awake. What if my dumb robot (DR), let’s call it Jeeves, what if Jeeves was programmed that unless I override his programming the night before had access to my calendar and saw that it was 8:00 and I have a work meeting at 9:00, but I was still in bed. Could Jeeves beep at me? Or even in a nice voice (maybe reminiscent of my mom calling me when I was a kid to get my butt out of bed) saying “Paul, are you up yet?”. Maybe more insistent if I don’t answer. The backup to my own false sense of infallibility.
But let’s say I get up on time and I’m heading for the shower. Do I want Jeeves to turn on the shower for me and have it pre-heated to the right temperature before I come in? Nothing particularly challenging about that. Movement to a preset location, turning a knob to a specific point, good to go. Not much of a time-saver, most people wouldn’t bother. But you could have Jeeves do it.
Now, showering, brushing your teeth, voiding, those are tasks you’re going to perform yourself. But if you had a slight disability, are there basic things Jeeves could do to hold an arm out to assist with transitions? Hand you a towel? Monitor you in case you fall and call someone if you do? Could Jeeves even assist with bathing for those who need it? That’s probably a bridge too far right now, but not an impassable chasm.
But as you finish up in the bathroom, could Jeeves make you breakfast? Your bowls, utensils, cereal, juice, glasses are all pretty much going to be in the same place every day, so automating the robot to fill a bowl with cereal and a glass with juice shouldn’t be that difficult. You just need some flexibility to identify to Jeeves what your bowls and glasses look like, the layout of your kitchen, etc. although scanning/mapping software would do that for it pretty easily. A more advanced version might even be able to crack open a couple of eggs, butter bread or toast, make you a fried egg sandwich so breakfast is ready whenever you are.
Once everything is over, presumably Jeeves could clean up and put dishes in the dishwasher, etc. Could maybe clean them, and put them back in exactly the same spot as the day before, but perhaps not.
When I go to work each morning, there are basically six things I take with me. My tablet, my work blackberry, my personal phone, usually a book that I’m reading, my notebook, and my work pass. There are some other things in my bag, etc., but those six are pretty standard. I might or might not wear a coat depending on the day, different shoes, mitts, hats, always my car keys, but those are contextual. And once in a while, I forget something. Like my work pass. Why? Because I stopped somewhere on the way home, put it in the pocket of my jacket, got home, hung up the jacket, and forgot to put the pass on the shelf by the front door where I’ll see it. No biggie, but why am I using mental energy to remember to put it specifically in the same spot or remembering the next day? What if each of those six items had a small RFID tag on it that Jeeves would monitor. And if they weren’t all in my bag as I go to head out in the morning, Jeeves would say, “Excuse me, Paul, I don’t believe you have your work pass with you.” My first reaction will be, “What? No, of course I do, it’s right here in my … umm, why isn’t my pass in my bag? Oh right, it’s over here. Thanks Jeeves/memory jogger.” Is that a big deal? Of course not, but I bet I would program it to scan for the RFID’s when I’m leaving for the days when my brain is focused on the seven things my son, wife and I are talking about as we scramble to get out the door. Heck, sometimes it’s as simple as something got placed on top of my pass and I can’t physically see it on my shelf, and so I head out thinking I have everything.
Here’s where some of us will diverge. Lots of people would love to take the robot to work. That’s a bridge too far for me. If work wants to automate tasks, great, I shouldn’t bring my own “robot” to work to help me do my job. If so, why not just hire the robot?
But while I’m at work, could Jeeves vacuum the house? Clean a toilet? Wash pre-sorted laundry? Hang it on a line to dry or throw in the dryer and check if it is dry when done? Cut the grass? Shovel snow…oh, that would be sweet.
Could Jeeves be programmed with a more sophisticated kitchen module that would allow it to chop vegetables? Basically act as a sous-chef? Maybe even, with remote activation, throw a pizza in or a pre-assembled casserole so it’s ready when we all get home? I hesitate to go so far as having a full cookbook with multiple ingredients, but that is only an RFID tag on a standard sized container away from doable. Could he open the door and receive a package from UPS or FedEx? Could he collect the mail from a central box?
After supper, can it also double as a stand-in for a playmate for someone who is single or whose friends are busy that night? Get your mind out of the gutter. I mean rather than playing a board game or card game against a computer screen, could it roll dice, charge you rent in Monopoly, learn to throw and catch a frisbee? Or a baseball? Could it be programmed with multiple pitching styles to act like an automated pitcher that adjusts to your level and technique so you don’t have to hit balls by yourself and chase them? Could it act as pitcher with five little scouts running around it that chase balls and bring them back? Could it play basic tennis? Those are more about the design of the robot’s arms/movements than about technique for hitting or throwing a ball, so yes, they all could be done.
As I’m getting ready for bed, Jeeves could turn off all the lights downstairs (heck, an app can do that now). Jeeves could also monitor the location and charging status of my e-devices, and if they are not on the charger, go and get them and put them on charge. Or double check my to do list verbally with me to see if there is anything to adjust, delete, add. A personal secretary app, not unlike some of the functions Siri does now. But more interactive, following me around while I do other things.
And all of those things are doable. A dumb robot, personal assistant, digital butler, e-handmaiden, non-sentient slave. An article I read some time ago talked about the issue of android rights, similar basically to the idea that was raised in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Is an high-AI android property like a toaster? Or as the AI evolves, does it meet any criteria for self-awareness or even sentience? Except it missed the point.
Developers are looking for smart androids. People are looking for dumb robots.
If you had a Jeeves, what would you want it to do that you hate doing yourself?
And where the hell is our Jeeves?