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From man to machine: Life in the sci-fi era

Highlights
  • Many of us fear the power of robots yet forget the usefulness of digital assistants such as Alexa
  • Robotics technology has become cheaper and more readily available, enabling companies to experiment
  •  The focus of artificial intelligence is shifting from industrial to personal, with more robotics entering the consumer market

We’ve finally reached the era sci-fi writers and filmmakers have long dreamed of as the modern world explores the possibilities of artificial intelligence and robots.

They’re frequently portrayed as the obdurate, indestructible cybernetic assassins depicted in the Terminator film franchise or the rogue AI or “synthetic” in Ridley Scott’s Alien. In the former, the robot relentlessly pursues its human targets, unstoppable but for the crushing intervention of its ancestral cousin, an automated factory. 

What we may not realise is that robotics and AI are not as new – or terrifying – as we may think, and we need not look much further than our own back pockets for proof.

The smartphone at our disposal probably has a virtual digital assistant such as Alexa that can follow our queries through natural language processing (NLP), and neither robotics nor AI are new concepts. Likewise, the next new car we buy is likely to have some sort of automated collision-sensing system, and we’ve heard that in the future, cars are likely to drive themselves.

Costs fall, experiments rise 

The research director at the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics, Salah Sukkarieh, says the cost of the technology underpinning intelligent machines fell rapidly in the mid-2000s.

The components not only became cheaper but also more modular and freely available, making it unnecessary to build robot hardware or AI software from the ground up.

The business case for robotics was, and remains, free to grow exponentially.

“It’s not just a research institute and a big company going hand-in-hand anymore,” Sukkarieh says. “Now any company can throw a few hardware and software specialists together and the technology is so cheap that, all of a sudden, they can automate a car or a lawnmower or vacuum cleaner, and they’re touching our lives more closely.”

For instance, he says, the technology that the University of Sydney developed with Patrick Stevedores in 1997 to automate its port-loading facilities is the same as that in modern driverless cars. However, back then, Patrick was an outlier in making a business case to invest in robotics to reduce labour costs.

 “If you came to me 20 years ago, the ratio of technology cost to salary cost was 80 to 20,” Sukkarieh says. “If you come to me now it’s 20 to 80, so it has completely flipped.” 

Expect more automation

Respected futurist and speaker Shara Evans agrees that technology cost reductions, particularly for sensors, is making the business case for AI and robots more robust.

Rapid development in both fields means industry disruption will be “huge”, she says. And rapid advances in AI mean the transport industry might not be the only sector scrambling to review its strategy.

“I would say that anything that can be automated will be,” Evans says. “A lot of white-collar jobs could be automated and a number of people may be caught off guard in that respect.” 

Given Australia’s enormous land mass and mineral resources, most investment in robotics is focused on the transport, mining and agriculture sectors. But it’s not just about autonomous vehicles. 

For instance, one leading Australian energy exploration company is experimenting with AI to curate and query dozens of data sources, including equipment sensors. It’s a bid to hunt down new business value but also to regain and retain decades of employees’ lived experience.

 

 

“If you came to me 20 years ago, the ratio of technology cost to salary cost was 80 to 20. If you come to me now it’s 20 to 80, so it has completely flipped.”

- Salah Sukkareih, research director, Australian Centre for Field Robotics, The University of Sydney

Evans believes the character of robotics and AI will shift from industrial to personal, with more robotics entering the consumer market.

However, the ways that robotics and AI are starting to appear in industry more broadly are myriad and range from interesting to exotic.

Farmers and food meet the future

Work that requires a high degree of human dexterity and problem-solving, such as dentistry and mechanics, remains resistant to automation and AI. However, the food industry is challenging that notion, Sukkarieh says.

The director of food service analyst firm Food Industry Foresight, Rod Fowler, says machine intelligence is disrupting the entire supply chain from the farm to the dining table – and not just with gimmicky delivery drones.

Farmers are already using drones and other autonomous vehicles to automate crop monitoring, saving money and maximising yields.

Robots are also making pizzas and while it might be a stretch to expect them to start turning out duck à l’orange, consider Moley: ostensibly, it’s a set of robotic arms suspended above a cooking surface which can accurately manipulate utensils and ingredients. It mimics the movements of human chefs to make hundreds of recipes. And it’s expected to be commercially available soon.

“I think they’ll have some teething problems but it will eventually get there,” Fowler says.

Robots may not be at the stage where they can be friendly, multilingual companions like the humanoid C-3PO in Star Wars, but Evans says businesses shouldn’t ignore their disruptive potential.

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