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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New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times