Competent robots demoralise human workers – study

Artificial intelligence and automation might well be the future (and the now in some cases) but a study from Cornwell University suggests robots could negatively impact human performance.

While it might be widely accepted robotic workers would be more efficient than human counterparts, the dream which has been presented by technologists is an augmented workplace. Humans would benefit from the power of a robot, whether this be a physical or virtual one, with a symbiotic relationship producing a greater output. This is the theory, but the research disputes this concept.

“Think about a cashier working side-by-side with an automatic check-out machine, or someone operating a forklift in a warehouse which also employs delivery robots driving right next to them,” said Guy Hoffman, Assistant Professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

“While it may be tempting to design such robots for optimal productivity, engineers and managers need to take into consideration how the robots’ performance may affect the human workers’ effort and attitudes toward the robot and even toward themselves. Our research is the first that specifically sheds light on these effects.”

The test pinned university students against a robot in a relatively simple test. Both parties were given random text, asked to count the number of ‘G’s and then deposit the text in a relevant bin, market with a number to denote the number of ‘G’s. Depending on the performance of the human compared to the robot, the participants were placed in a lottery at the end of each round with a monetary reward. The interesting part of the test was the competence of the robot, which was varied throughout the rounds.

What the research found could have quite an impact on how robotics, artificial intelligence and automation are applied in the work place. The researchers found that as the robot performed better, people rated its competence higher, its likability lower and their own competence lower.

In short, human workers were demoralised when effective and efficient automation was introduced.

While this might all seem very obvious, the long-term promise of robotics, artificial intelligence and automation could be completely undermined. Optimists in the industry have promised the application of these technologies would be the enhance human performance, not replace it, however, it this introduction has the power to degrade human performance you have to wonder what the point would actually be.

What is worth noting is that this research is not directly applicable to most of the usecases which have been discussed, but the learnings should be factored in to any initiatives. In most cases, the technology would perform a different role to the human, whereas this experiment from Cornell University pitted human versus machine. However, such is the desire for success and credibility from people in general, they will naturally compare themselves to robot performance in the first instance, even if there is no direct crossover.

In the telco world, the main applications to date have been in network automation and customer services, the latter of which is where the risk could become more apparent. There is a feeling customer service agents will eventually be entirely taken over by robotics, artificial intelligence and automation, therefore in the intervening period the risk of poor performance is relevant.

That said, irrelevant as to where robotics, artificial intelligence and automation are being applied to the business, this is certainly material worth thinking about. If the overall objective is to improve the end product and performance, the moral of human workers will almost certainly have to be taken into account. That is, of course, unless we are all doomed to be replaced by robots entirely…

President Trump’s unexpected ally: Finland kick-starts 6G

A few days after Donald Trump tweeted about 6G, when he was roundly ridiculed, Finland’s scientists proved that he had a point by announcing their plan at MWC 2019 to embark on the journey towards 6G.

The researchers in Finland expect 6G to take shape in about 2030. To gain the leadership by that time, the so-called “6Genesis” has been selected as the country’s flagship high-tech project for an eight-year period 2018-2026. The project is hosted by the University of Oulu, ranked a top 3 university globally in radio access engineering.

Professor Ari Pouttu, who leads the project, introduced the vision and key technology streams at the event. 6G will satisfy the expectations not yet met by 5G as well as new expectations fusing AI inspired applications with ubiquitous wireless connectivity, Professor Pouttu said. Specifically, he foresaw four technology trends that are fundamentally different from earlier generations.

“Wireless Connectivity” in 6G means disruptive radio access deployed on 5G core networks, enabling Tbps speed and deliver unmanned process. “Devices & Circuits” means that the current semiconductors will not be able to operate on super high-frequencies. When communication takes place on frequencies above 500GHz or even at terahertz level, new materials will be needed to replace silicon. “Distributed Computing” refers to moving the computing power to the extreme edge. For example, instead of conducting computing from the “brain” of the robot, in 6G environment computing will need to be moved to every limp tip of the robot to enable time critical and trusted apps. “Service & Applications” refers to the disruptive value networks enabled by multidisciplinary research across industry verticals, in contrast to the siloed approach to research and development now.

The Finnish government has already granted 6Genesis €25 million through the Academy of Finland. Five co-founders have signed up, including Nokia, VTT (Finland’s technology research centre), Aalto University, Oulu University of Applied Sciences, and BusinessOulu (local business promotional agency). The total funding of the project so far, including contribution from these partners, other national and EU grants, plus the Academy of Finland grant, amounted to €251 million. Professor Pouttu quipped, while speaking to Telecoms.com, that this amount is for science fiction, not science. He may be on the conservative side with his estimation for science fiction though. “Avengers: Infinity War”, a recent sci-fi blockbuster, cost nearly $400 million (€350 million) to make.

Improving funding is clearly one of the reasons why the project was calling for more companies and institutions to sign up. The fact that the announcement was made during MWC could only mean that global partners are also being sought after. Professor Pouttu could consider pushing a tweet to President Trump directly.

The world’s first 6G Wireless Summit will be held in March in Levi, a ski resort in Finnish Lapland.

Boston Dynamics rehabs drunken robot into parkour expert

Boston Dynamics has released a new video of its humanoid robot, Atlas, and it is scarily impressive how quickly the technology is advancing.

Two years ago the firm released a video of one of its employees testing out Atlas by taking it for a walk through snowy woods, knocking items out of its hands and knocking the robot off balance with a hockey stick. You can see the video at the bottom of the article, we decided the dubbed version was a bit more entertaining, though the latest video show remarkable progress by Boston Dynamics.

As you can see below, Atlas has gone from a staggering buffoon to a potential Olympian.

Many through the industry, us included, might be surprised. Robotics is an area which does not get much attention nowadays, perhaps due to the perception it is an area is not progressing in the same way as other next-gen tech. Of course, there are incredibly advanced machines in various different factories, but the idea of a humanoid machine we’ve gotten used to through Hollywood is laughable. Not anymore.

Although life for Boston Dynamics began as a spin-off from MIT, it was acquired by Google for an unknown price in 2013. Shortly after acquiring the robotics business, Google was reportedly in the market looking to offload the firm, struggling to see profitability or how it would fit into the wider Google universe. The rumours proved to be true, and Softbank purchased Boston Dynamics in 2017.

Atlas might be the product getting the attention today, but it is not the only robot worth keeping an eye on. Spot and SpotMini are four-legged versions, which move in a similarly remarkable way to Atlas, while Handle is a robot with both legs and wheels.

The incredible thing about Atlas right now is the progress which has been made in terms of balance. If you compare the two videos, the Boston Dynamics team seem to have mastered the art of stability and shifting weight in real-time. In the latest video, you can see Atlas even manages to identify the steps are not straight and shifts direction to safely land on the boxes. Such movement suggests the robots are not far away from real-world applications.

Stereo vision, range sensing and other sensors give Atlas the ability to manipulate objects in its environment and to travel on rough terrain, while it keeps its balance when jostled or pushed and can get up if it tips over. One of the immediate use cases could be delivery. There of course a few hurdles to adoption right now, the payload is only 11kg while battery life would have to be considerable, though these are minor challenges in comparison to what has been achieved so far. On the darker side, there will be several governments around the world looking at these robots with more militaristic ambitions.

There are of course scary implications for every new technology, just look at how the US Government wants to use AI to improve the accuracy of drone strikes, but that should not take away from the genuinely amazing progress here.

And as promised, here is Atlas in his early days:

Nvidia builds new AI platform to give robots better brains

Nvidia has announced the general availability of its Isaac platform designed to bring the futuristic world of robots for manufacturing, logistics, agriculture, construction and other industries.

The platform was launched at Computex 2018, includes hardware, software and a virtual-world robot simulator, as well as Jetson Xavier, which Nvidia claim’s is world’s first computer designed specifically for robotics.

“AI is the most powerful technology force of our time,” said CEO Jensen Huang. “Its first phase will enable new levels of software automation that boost productivity in many industries. Next, AI, in combination with sensors and actuators, will be the brain of a new generation of autonomous machines. Someday, there will be billions of intelligent machines in manufacturing, home delivery, warehouse logistics and much more.”

Looking specifically of Jetson Xavier, the box contains 9 billion transistors, delivering more than trillion operations per second, while using a third the energy of a lightbulb. Jetson Xavier has six kinds of high-performance processors, including a Volta Tensor Core GPU, an eight-core ARM64 CPU, dual NVDLA deep learning accelerators, an image processor, a vision processor and a video processor. This level of performance is critical due to the complexity of robotics with processes such as sensor processing, odometry, localization and mapping, vision and perception, and path planning.

On the Isaac Robotics Software side of things, Nvidia has billed the platform as a ‘toolbox’ for the simulation, training, verification and deployment of Jetson Xavier. The robotics software consists of Isaac SDK, APIs and tools to develop robotics algorithm software, Isaac IMX, the platforms Intelligent Machine Acceleration applications and Isaac Sim, a virtual simulation environment for training.

Nvidia will have a lot to live up for with these announcements. Aside from making big promises to a segment of artificial intelligence which has struggled to make progress, the team has stated the $1,299 box will have the same processing power as a $10,000 workstation.