If everything's being automated, let's hope we'll like our robots

The robots may be taking our jobs - even making our coffee - but that doesn't mean we'll be fond of them.

How do you make the inevitable robot uprising easier to stomach? Those thinking we were guaranteed a future of flipping burgers and making coffee for each other will be disheartened to hear that coffee company Briggo has managed to solve the latter of those issues with an autonomous kiosk. Christopher Mims at Quarts explains:

Inside, protected by stainless steel walls and a thicket of patents, there is a secret, proprietary viscera of pipes, storage vessels, heating instruments, robot arms and 250 or so sensors that together do everything a human barista would do if only she had something like perfect self-knowledge. “How is my milk steamer performing? Am I a half-degree off in my brewing temperature? Is my water pressure consistent? Is there any residue buildup on my brewing chamber that might require me to switch to a backup system?”

The Briggo coffee kiosk knows how to make a perfect coffee because it was “trained” by an award-winning barista, Patrick Pierce. He's since left the company, but no matter: as in the techno-utopian Singularity, whose adherents believe that some day we will all upload our brains to computers, once a barista's essence has been captured by Briggo, his human form is just a legacy system.

That last bit will sound familiar to Star Wars fans - Patrick Pierce is Starbucks' Jango Fett, and his wood-panelled Yves Behar-designed clones are the stormtrooper clones of high street coffee. It's not just able to match us, it's able to match the absolute best of us.

It's worth reading Mims' piece in full, as he goes on to explain that Nespresso - that little coffee capsule system - has replaced the coffee machines in many of Europe's Michelin-starred restaurants. Anyone, with minimal training, can make a consistently top-class coffee using those capsule. Why bother training a barista? And, as the Brisso kiosk shows, why even bother hiring a human to put the capsule into the machine?

For those who actually enjoy human interaction at places like coffee shops, this is a sad thing. Robots aren't friends. A designer's basic job is to make things that humans can and want to use, and that's going to start meaning “making robots that we want to interact with”.

To whit, here's a video some researchers at MIT have made demonstrating their idea for a helpful, flying drone that people can call with their smartphones. It's a bit like a tour guide:

Drones, of course, have a terrible reputation, because for every one that is put to good use delivering burritos, there are ones being used to bomb people without warning in places like Pakistan and Yemen. As Dezeen tells it:

Yaniv Jacob Turgeman, research and development lead at Senseable City Lab, said SkyCall was designed to counter the sinister reputation of drones, and show they can be useful. "Our imaginations of flying sentient vehicles are filled with dystopian notions of surveillance and control, but this technology should be tasked with optimism," he told Dezeen.

That optimism comes in the form of a friendly, female - but still distinctly robotic - voice. It's like something from a computer game. Is it particularly reassuring? Not massively. It doesn't give off that trustworthy vibe you'd get from another human, or even a paper map.

Trustworthiness is a theme that's been explored in science fiction for years and years, of course, from Fritz Lang's Metropolis to Will Smith's I, Robot, so it's not surprising to see designers begin to tackle it. You also get the idea of the "uncanny valley" thrown around - if you plot a graph of "human likeness" on the x-axis of a graph and "how real it looks to people" on the y-axis, you get a steady correlation that collapses (into a "valley" shape") just before it reaches actual human likeness. That is, the objects that creep us out the most are the things that look closest to human as possible while just falling short. It's all a way of saying that creating things that look like humans, for situations where we expect humans, is tricky.

Studies that have looked at what kind of human-likeness we want in our robots have given rise to some surprising results. Akanksha Prakash from Georgia Tech carried out one such study, and its results (published earlier this month) show that, often, participants don't actually want to be helped by human-like robots. The more delicate the task - like having help in the bath - the more divisive the opinions on whether something human-like is better.

There's also a generational divide, with younger people not minding things that look like human-robot hybrids around the house, whereas older people prefer the straightforwardly human. There are clearly a lot of psychological factors at work that are going to prove a challenge to designers hoping that their product - whatever it is - becomes a hit.

Perhaps when the robots arrive they'll still have some human-like features, in the same way that some smartphones still use yellow, lined paper to give people a clue that the app they've opened is for making notes - or like wood-panelling on the side of an autonomous coffee kiosk.

You'd rather play with the one on the right, wouldn't you? (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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“Stop treating antibiotics like sweets”: the threat we face from antibioitic resistance

Currently, 700,000 people die per year from the resistance of microbes to medicine, and it is predicted that 10 million people will die per year by 2050.

Got a cold? Take some antibiotics. Feeling under the weather? Penicillin will patch you up. Or so the common advice goes. However, unless we start to rethink our dependency on antibiotics, a death every three seconds is the threat we potentially face from evolving resistance by microorganisms to the drugs. The stark warning was issued following a review which analysed the consequences we could face from needless administering of antibiotics.

The antimicrobial resistance (AMR) review was led by economist Jim O’Neill, who was tasked by the prime minister in 2014 with investigating the impact of growing resistance. Currently, 700,000 people die per year from the resistance of microbes to medicine, and the report predicts that 10 million people will die per year by 2050. An overwhelming global expense of $100trn will be the price to pay unless incisive, collaborative action is taken.

Antimicrobial resistance (as referred to in the title of the report) is an umbrella term for the resistance developed by microorganisms to drugs specifically designed to combat the infections they cause. Microorganisms include things such as bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites. The report especially focused on the ramifications of increased resistance of microorganisms to anitbiotics.

Many medical procedures are dependent on the effectiveness of drugs such as antibiotics: treatments for cancer patients and antibiotic prophylaxis during surgeries, for example. All could be under threat by increased resistance. The continuing rise of resistant superbugs and the impotence of antibiotics would pose “as big a risk as terrorism”. A post-antibiotic world would spell dystopia.

Bacterial microbes develop resistance through evolutionary-based natural selection. Mutations to their genetic makeup are passed on to other bacteria through an exchange of plasmid DNA. Unnecessary prescriptions by doctors and inappropriate antibiotic usage by patients (such as half-finishing a course) also contribute. Over the years, a number of bacteria and viruses have found a way to counteract antibiotics used against them: E. Coli, malaria, tuberculosis and Staphylococcus aureus, to name a few.

The report employed the consultancy firms KPMG and Rand to undertake the analyses, and O’Neill outlines 10 different measures to tackle the issue. Key areas of focus include: global campaigns to expand public awareness, the upholding of financial and economic measures by pharmaceutical companies in the development of new medicines and vaccines as alternatives, greater sanitation to prevent infections spreading, and the creation of a Global Innovation Fund which will enable collective research.

O’Neill told the BBC:

“We need to inform in different ways, all over the world, why it’s crucial we stop treating our antibiotics like sweets. If we don’t solve the problem we are heading to the dark ages; we will have a lot of people dying. We have made some pretty challenging recommendations which require everybody to get out of the comfort zone, because if we don’t then we aren’t going to be able to solve this problem.”

In the foreword of the report, O’Neill states that over 1 million people have died from developing resistance since 2014. The urgency in tackling this issue is clear, which is why he has offered an incentive to companies to develop new treatments - a reward of more than $1 billion will be given to those who bring a successful new treatment to the market.

According to the report, the cost of successful global action would equate to $40bn over the next decade, which could result in the development of 15 new antibiotics. Small cuts to health budgets and a tax on antibiotics have been proposed as ways of achieving the financial quota for drug research.

Though the report has highlighted the severity of antibiotic resistance, some believe that the full extent of the matter isn’t sufficiently explored. O’Neill mentions that there are some secondary effects which haven’t been taken into account “such as the risks in carrying out caesarean sections, hip replacements, or gut surgery”. This suggests that alternative remedies should be found for non-surgical procedures, so that antibiotics aren’t made redundant in environments where they are most needed.

Since the analysis began in 2014, new types of resistance have surfaced, including a resistance to colistin, a drug which is currently used as a last-resort. Its affordability resulted in increased use, particularly as a component of animal feed, meaning greater opportunity for superbugs to develop resistance to even our most dependable of antibiotics.

Widespread drug resistance would prove to be a big issue for many charities tackling infections around the world. Dr Grania Bridgen from Médecins Sans Frontières told the BBC that the report addresses a “broad market failure”, which is important but isn’t enough.

Despite the mixed response to the report, it has had a seal of approval from the Wellcome Trust and the Department of Health. Speaking earlier this year, Chancellor George Osborne stated this issue “is not just a health problem but an economic one, too. The cost of doing nothing, both in terms of lives lost and money wasted, is too great, and the world needs to come together to agree a common approach.”

If antibiotics are to remain potent antidotes to infectious diseases in the future, we need to put a plan in motion now.