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Rage against the machine: has technology advanced too much?

Shivananda Koteshwar
12th Mar 2018
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While machines have simplified our lives and relieved us of certain redundant activities, there is cause to worry if we have created a monster out of the machines.

Technology has advanced so much that what was before only seen in sci-fi movies are now all around us. Take, for example, the 100,000 individual IoT sensors that stud the 1400-kilometre waterway that connects the Danjiangkou Reservoir to Beijing and Tianjin, to monitor structural damage, tracking water quality and flow rates, and watching for intruders, whether humans or animals. Or, KIT's ARMAR-6 Humanoid, which helps humans fix other robots, or even a no steering wheel GM car. Media coverage, today, is liberally sprinkled with the following terms - 5G, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence/machine learning, robots, and driverless cars, and for good reasons. The time is now.

When we look at the recently concluded CES 2018, the world's gathering place for all those who thrive on the business of consumer technologies, we see a common theme – pushing boundaries of technology. Some interesting products were:

  1. HushMe, a earphone-equipped mask that you snap around your mouth. A microphone inside the mask transmits your voice to your phone, while the mask blocks the sound of your voice from being overheard by those nearby.
  2. Somnox, a robot that pulses gently, as if it was slowly breathing, encouraging users to relax and slow their own breathing. It can also play music or an audio book, automatically turning off when it detects their user has fallen asleep.
  3. CX1, an intelligent autonomous carry-on luggage with motorised wheels, using a camera to recognise you, avoid obstacles and follow you.
  4. Hip’Air, a belt equipped with airbags that inflate if the wearer falls. It’s intended to protect seniors from broken hips.
  5. FoldiMate, a refrigerator-sized machine that folds clothes.
  6. M1 Fetus Camera, a home ultrasound scanner that can display 2D or 3D images of a fetus on your smartphone.

This got me curious to find out what are recognised as innovations of 2018 so far. Here are the top 10 products under the innovation award category:

  1. Siren Diabetes Socks, built with miniature temperature sensors that are washable and seamlessly embedded into the fabric helping people with diabetes know when their feet are injured.
  2. Wall, Samsung Micro LED TV self-emitting MicroLED 146” TV display, which excels in durability and effectiveness, including luminous efficiency, the light source lifetime and power consumption, setting the standard for future screen technology.
  3. Aipoly Autonomous Store Platform, a camera and AI system combo with the aim of turning convenience stores into automated-checkout mini-marts.
  4. Beosound Shape, a wireless music system unlike anything we've seen before. The key to this is Bang & Olufsen’s algorithm, which was developed to ensure that the sound remains centred no matter where you move in the room by creating a fixed soundstage.
  5. AR4, AI Security Camera, a fourth-generation professional outdoor AIpowered security camera robot that can recognise face and tell the difference between people, cars. and even pets.
  6. Buddy, the companion robot, the first social robot that connects, protects, and interacts with each member of your family.
  7. Elliq, AI-driven social robot for older adults. ElliQ encourages older adults to keep active and engaged while helping to overcome the digital divide and keeping families closer together.
  8. WHILL, challenging today’s powered mobility conventions, WHILL Personal Electric Vehicles are bringing a fresh perspective to personal mobility with an innovative design and state-of-the-art technology.
  9. Nuviz, integrated head-up display for motorcyclists allowing riders to integrate many technological functions into one helmet-mounted device. Removing the need for individual devices for music, action camera, navigation, and communication means less distraction, less fiddling, and more attention to the road ahead.
  10. Looxid VR, virtual and augmented reality headset with eye-tracking cameras and EEG sensors built in will track your eyes and your brain.

All these products highlight that we are closely integrating robotics, AI and automation into our everyday life. While all these products look interesting, there are always the same questions:

Do we need it?

Does it add value to our life?

Will it make us live in a fantasy world?

Will it affect my emotional and social skills?

Is it value for money?

Will it take away all the jobs?

While there are positive answers for all these questions, I hope the three laws of robotics or the Asimov's Laws are never compromised:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

When I start interacting with a new gadget; to give you an example, I recently bought Amazon Echo, I started realising the way I pronounced words, and thereafter the way I talk to the machine changed. While we think we are programming and customising the machine, the machine is programming and customising all of us to speak the way it wants.

So, the pertinent question that needs to be asked here is, ‘are humans becoming more robotic?’, instead of asking, ‘are robots becoming more human?’

Have you noticed the emails you get when you buy one of these products?

Things to try

"Alexa, when's the next blue moon?"

"Alexa, give me a foreign language quiz."

"Alexa, when is the Super Bowl?"

“Alexa, play 100 greatest Bollywood love songs.”

“Alexa, open a 7-minute workout.”

“Alexa, tell me a children’s joke.”

“Alexa, tell me a palindrome."

"Alexa, when was Generation X born?"

"Alexa, who's your favorite skateboarder?"

"Alexa, what's the word of the day?"

"Alexa, tell me a dinosaur joke."

"Alexa, what's the fifth largest city in the United States?"

"Alexa, enable Today in Music."

We are not teaching Alexa; instead Alexa is eliminating ambiguity, and is making us learn how to interact with it instead. Should I say ‘reverse learning’? What this is doing is it is making all of us generalists and predictable.

Haven’t you noticed, we all talk to Siri or Google Assistant the same way? Though Natural Language Processing (NLP) has come a long way, the machines have successfully transformed all of us to speak at a particular pace, pitch and volume. Every day, you and I and everybody else routinely respond to a stimulus without understanding what we’re getting ourselves into. In other words, we are behaving like machines. We’re being, in a sense, conditioned or programmed to behave that way.

It’s not just products; technology, too, is enabling a smooth transition of these products’ integration in our lives. With these new products on the shelf, we are seeing a big shift in communication technologies too. The fifth generation of connectivity, called 5G, will be ready for prime time later this year. The software is being tested, the hardware is in the works, and carriers are readying their plans to deploy 5G in select markets by the end of 2018.

The new networking standard is not just about faster smartphones. Instead, it is based on higher speeds and lower latency, which will make new experiences possible in the new norm. The new norm comprising augmented and virtual reality, connected cars and the smart home — any realm where machines need to talk to each other constantly and without lag.

While technologists are debating on the pros and cons of some of the newer technologies, I get worried when I read articles such as the one titled, ‘Stanford's AI predicts death for better end-of-life care’.

We are already in the verge of breaking the fine fabric of human emotions in our social lives. With these products aren’t we pushing the new technology too fast into a society, which still needs more human touch and emotional quotient?

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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