Past, Present and Future

Reflections on the pace of technology change

Baxter Thompson Ltd, Robina Chatham

‘What are people for in a world that does not need their labour, and where only the minority are needed to guide the bot based economy?’ 

I feel privileged to have lived in unique times.  As someone who was born in 1956 I have witnessed the introduction of computers into our lives from the very beginning.  At school I used logarithmic tables, during my first year at university I used a slide rule, by my second year hand held calculators had just become affordable.

I first learned to code in Fortran IV and submitted a stack of punch cards for batch programming each evening.  The following morning, after my program had crashed, I would receive a ‘core dump’ to help me diagnose the errors in my program.  Over time the core dump would get smaller (providing of course my fellow students had not shuffled my punch cards whilst I wasn't looking) and eventually by program would work.

I witnessed the first dumb terminals with a VDU and the first PC’s.  I personally pioneered the introduction of computers onto the shop floor for the first time at Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering.  For 18 months I ran BT’s  ‘Information Center’ in the North East District putting PC’s into the business for the first time and introducing their ‘users’ to ‘End User Computing’.  I observed the transition from memos to internal mainframe based email and subsequently to email as we know it today. 

I wrestled with such issues as data security and disaster recovery and struggling to convince the Board that we needed to spend money on such precautions.  I was a part of the fear and in some cases panic leading up to the millennium and the huge anti-climax that followed. Day by day the world has got ‘smarter’ and its continuing to do so an ever increasing pace.  New innovations are constantly hitting the streets – today smart traffic lights monitor and improve traffic flow and reduce pollution, crimes can be predicted before they happen and people’s health can be monitored remotely to name but a few.

Indeed my husband and I have just purchased our first robot – an auto-mower. My husband didn’t believe the technology was there yet but after four months he is a convert. Our lawn has not had any human intervention over that period of time and the quality has notably improved too. ‘Blade Runner’ as we call him has changed our lives, we are no longer weekend slaves to our garden; his random movements are mesmerizing to watch, especially whilst sipping a G & T on the patio. 

The pace of change has been rapid and the need for people to adapt to new ways of working has never been so dramatic.  However, we are now poised at the dawn of what I believe to be a second and more spectacular technical revolution. With the advent of technologies such as blockchain and the advancement in robotics and when the infrastructure and battery technology has developed sufficiently to truly exploit the Internet of Things our lives are set to change beyond our wildest dreams. 

I recently attended a conference on robotics at Cranfield University. The morning sessions focused on the technology whilst the afternoon sessions focused on the human element and the implications for society in general. Cranfield themselves are currently researching human and robot collaboration; current projects include:

  • The capture of human skill with a focus on tacit knowledge and the idiosyncratic techniques and short cuts that only an experienced operator would know 

  • Cooperative and anticipatory machine intelligence where robots understand how humans move and anticipate their next movement. As well as pre-programed data the robot receives movement/proximity data via both its own sensors and also those worn by its human colleague 

  • Increasing human/machine trust and acceptance by ‘humanizing’ robots. They are currently teaching robots human gestures such as a thumbs up, a high five and to chink a mug  

Kitchen robots are expected to be with us by 2019, such robots will not only be able to cook and wash-up they will also be able to read facial expressions and body language to sense what mood you are in. They will interact with your smart fridge so will know what ingredients are available to cook your dinner. On Monday 25 September this year an autonomous taxi made its maiden flight in Dubai. The ‘Volocopter” as it is called is set to become the cornerstone of a flying taxi service – an ‘Uber’ of the skies. Dubai has also set an audacious target of getting all government information and services running on blockchain by 2020. 

Industrial, domestic and professional robots are poised to impact both our working and personal lives. Businesses and society at large will be faced with new moral and ethical dilemmas. Cyber security will need to take on a new level of importance as the number of points of attack increase and the consequences of such an attack become potentially catastrophic. Just because something is technically possible it does not automatically mean that it should be done. Should, for example, we restrict the use of industrial robots to roles that humans either can’t perform or that are potentially damaging to human heath and/or safety? If we don’t, and as suggested at the Cranfield conference, the central question of 2025 may become: 

‘What are people for in a world that does not need their labour, and where only the minority are needed to guide the bot based economy?’ 

Alongside this view comes the concept of ‘Universal Income’ and a world were the virtual one becomes preferable to the real one: ‘Brave New World’ becomes a reality!

The above may be a cynical view of the future but one I believe we should not leave to chance. Business and government need to ensure that we don’t de-humanize people, that human capability and machine intelligence are brought together in the spirit of co-creation; they need to consider the impact new technical capabilities will have on individual people and also society as a whole. Business and academia need to consider the next generation into the workplace, Gen Z, whom we are currently training for jobs that won’t exist. Ultimately business, government and academia need to focus on the symbiotic relationship between human beings and technology as the two merge closer together.

As we think ahead to the future, what are your reflections? Post your replies to these questions in the survey link below. We're really keen to hear what you have to say as it will help influence the agenda for next year on what we bring to you in terms of forum topics.

Robina

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