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.

Photo: Getty
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Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.