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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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.