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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Apple-cervix ears and spinach-vein hearts: Will humans soon be “biohacked”?

Leafy greens could save your life – and not just if you eat them.

You are what you eat, and now bioengineers are repurposing culinary staples as “ghost bodies” – scaffolding on which human tissues can be grown. Nicknamed “biohacking”, this manipulation of vegetation has potentially meaty consequences for both regenerative medicine and cosmetic body modification.

A recent study, published in Biomaterials journal, details the innovative use of spinach leaves as vascular scaffolds. The branching network of plant vasculature is similar to our human system for transporting blood, and now this resemblance has been put to likely life-saving use. Prior to this, there have been no ways of reproducing the smallest veins in the human body, which are less than 10 micrometres in diameter.

The team of researchers responsible for desecrating Popeye’s favourite food is led by bioengineering professor Glenn Gaudette and PhD student Joshua Gershlak at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). They were discussing the dearth of organ donors over lunch when they were inspired to use their lunch to help solve the problem.

In 2015 the NHS released figures showing that in the last decade over 6000 people, including 270 children, had died while waiting for an organ transplant. Hearts, in particular, are in short supply as it is so far impossible to perfectly recreate a human heart. After a heart attack, often there is a portion of tissue that no longer beats, and so cannot push blood around the body. A major obstacle to resolving this is the inability to engineer dense heart muscle, peppered with enough capillaries. There must be adequate flow of oxygenated blood to every cell in order to avoid tissue death.

However, the scientists had an ingenious thought – each thin, flat spinach leaf already came equipped with its own microscopic system of channels. If these leaves were stacked together, the resulting hunk of human muscle would be dense and veiny. Cautiously, the team lined the cellulose matrix with cardiac muscle cells and monitored their progress. After five days they were amazed to note that the cells had begun to contract – like a beating heart. Microbeads, roughly the same size as blood cells, were pumped through the veins successfully.

Although the leafy engineering was a success, scientists are currently unaware of how to proceed with grafting their artificial channels into a real vasculatory system, not least because of the potential for rejection. Additionally, there is the worry that the detergents used to strip the rigid protein matrix from the rest of the leaf (in order for human endothelial cells to be seeded onto this “cellulose scaffolding”) may ruin the viability of the cells. Luckily, cellulose is known to be “biocompatible”, meaning your body is unlikely to reject it if it is properly buried under your skin.

Elsa Sotiriadis, Programme Director at RebelBio & SOSventures, told me: “cellulose is a promising, widely abundant scaffolding material, as it is renewable, inexpensive and biodegradable”, adding that “once major hurdles - like heat-induced decomposition and undesirable consistency at high concentrations - are overcome, it could rapidly transform 3D-bioprinting”. 

This is only the most recent instance of “bio-hacking”, the attempt to fuse plant and human biology. Last year scientists at the Pelling Laboratory for Biophysical Manipulation at the University of Ottawa used the same “scrubbing” process to separate the cellulose from a slice of Macintosh red apple and repopulate it with “HeLa” cervix cells. The human ear made from a garden variety piece of fruit and some cervix was intended as a powerful artistic statement, playing on the 1997 story of the human ear successfully grafted onto the back of a live mouse. In contrast to the WPI researchers, whose focus is on advancing regenerative medicine – the idea that artificial body parts may replace malfunctioning organic ones – Andrew Pelling, head of the Pelling Laboratory, is more interested in possible cosmetic applications and the idea of biohacking as simply an extension of existing methods of modification such as tattooing.

Speaking to WIRED, Pelling said: “If you need an implant - an ear, a nose - why should that aesthetic be dictated by the company that's created it? Why shouldn't you control the appearance, by doing it yourself or commissioning someone to make an organ?

The public health agency in Canada, which is unusually open to Pelling’s “augmented biology”, has supported his company selling modified body parts. Most significantly, the resources needed for this kind of biohacking – primarily physical, rather than pharmacological or genetic – are abundant and cheap. There are countless different forms of plant life to bend to our body ideals – parsley, wormwood, and peanut hairy roots have already been trialled, and the WPI team are already considering the similarities between broccoli and human lungs. As Pelling demonstrated by obtaining his equipment via dumpster-diving and then open-sourcing the instructions on how to assemble everything correctly, the hardware and recipes are also freely available.

Biohacking is gaining popularity among bioengineers, especially because of the possibility for even wackier uses. In his interview with WIRED, Pelling was excited about the possibility of using plants to make us sexier, wondering whether we could “build an erogenous interaction using materials that have textures you find pleasing [to change how our skin feels]? We're looking at asparagus, fennel, mushroom...” If he has his way, one day soon the saying “you are what you eat” could have an entirely different meaning.

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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