Robotics and AI are poised to be a trillion-dollar industry worldwide. What are some of the more unusual and innovative applications? Chris Middleton presents a ‘Top of the Bots’ chart rundown.
The global market for artificial intelligence (AI) systems was estimated to be worth $260 billion in 2016, according to UK-RAS, the umbrella group for British robotics research. That figure will exceed $3 trillion by 2024, say the organisation’s researchers.
Meanwhile, eight per cent of all jobs are already occupied by robots, a number that will soar to 26 per cent by 2020, according to UK-RAS statistics.
Set alongside the prediction made last year by Dr Anders Sandberg of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute that nearly half of all jobs (47 per cent) will be automated in the future, it’s clear that the economic impact of robots in our society will be massive, even if these figures prove to be overestimates.
With the rise of AI and machine learning fast impacting on both consumer and enterprise applications, robotics is set to be an enormous field that expands far beyond the idea of mechanical men – a dream that entranced mankind for centuries before the word ‘robot’ was coined in Karel Čapek’s 1920 play, ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ (from the Czech ‘robota’, meaning ‘forced labour’).
Today, most people are aware of humanoid machines, industrial robots, driverless cars, and smart assistants, such as Alexa and Siri. But what are the more unusual, innovative, or surprising applications of robotics and autonomous systems (RAS)?
AI and natural language processing are already available in the cloud, via services such as IBM’s Watson. Linking apps, IoT devices, and humanoid machines to supercomputers (and even to quantum computers) in this way creates opportunities for start-ups in the field of industry-specific data.
One such company is self-styled ‘cognitive travel agent’, WayBlazer, which provides tourism-specific data to robots, via Watson in the cloud. The Hilton group is trialling Aldeberan Robotics/SoftBank humanoid concierges in select hotel foyers. Thanks to WayBlazer and Watson, these robots are able to answer questions about local sights and amenities, and to make recommendations.
While human beings have performed this role for centuries, the potential for robots to access vast amounts of data on demand and in near real time (subject to network speed) gives them a super-human advantage.
Entry-level and even expert professional roles in sectors such as banking and investment are in the vanguard of automation trends worldwide. Mitsubishi UFJ, Bank of America, Merrill Edge, and UBS are among the many companies pursuing automated customer services, and in some cases robotic investment platforms. Others are using AI to second-guess customer behaviour and persuade more conservative investors to think outside of their comfort zones.
Like banking today, the law is a set of enforceable rules, which makes it a greenfield site for robotic applications and AI.
AI lawyers already exist online, while legal firms are increasingly using AI and automation to help sift through centuries of case law, in order to free up human advisors to focus on their clients.
The cost-saving and productivity advantages are clear for both employers and investors, while automating menial tasks helps the lawyers themselves. However, two risks open up in this sector, just as they do in financial services. These are:
- Reduced employment opportunities for skilled human beings. Arguably, the professional middle classes will be hardest hit by AI and automation.
- A potential gulf opening up between newly qualified people entering the job market and any opportunities to ‘learn the ropes’ of their profession at junior level.
In short: robots are removing the first rung of the career ladder.
Robocop is fast becoming a reality.
Autonomous Knightscope K5 robots are already patrolling parts of Silicon Valley, while the similar-looking Anbot is used for riot control in China. Meanwhile, Dubai has employed Pal Robotics’ Reem humanoids in citizen-liaison roles on the city’s streets – the first step on a journey towards robot policemen, say the authorities.
The ethical challenges of industrialising law enforcement are clear. These include the potential to automate bias or prejudice – see Prof. Simon Rogerson’s recent article on ethics in ICT – and the question of whether machines should be allowed to harm human beings. While international human rights laws exist, they’re interpreted very differently in, say, Saudi Arabia and Iran than they are in the UK or France.
In the military realm, weaponised drones and the US’ ‘Loyal Wingman’ semi-autonomous fighter jet share these ethical challenges.
With driverless cars set to be the next transport revolution, many companies are exploring robots’ potential to transform home deliveries. Amazon – which has a huge robotics division – is experimenting with aerial drones, while companies such as Tesco and courier giant Hermes are trialling Starship Technologies’ autonomous delivery vehicles on London’s streets. At the moment, they’re accompanied by human walkers – just as the first motor cars were on Britain’s roads in the 19th Century.
Journalism and publishing
Many newspapers, such as the FT and The Sun, are deploying AI to deepen the relationships between users and content, by directing them towards related articles. Similarly, education giant Pearson is using AI to turn its courses into personal tutors online.
Combined with big data analytics, such programmes can have a measurable impact on profitability and reader engagement.
Meanwhile, Google has given the Press Association $1 million to develop the RADAR scheme, which uses AI to automate the production of news articles from local government databases. The plan has been criticised for removing human interpretation and investigation from local news gathering.
Bloomberg and Reuters are among the other agencies to invest in automated news, while News UK, parent company of The Times and The Sun, is investigating the potential to automate its subs desk – not the news itself, but the editorial production processes behind it.
Overall, a future of content being generated by machines to hit SEO targets and be picked up by Web crawlers seems inevitable: robot news for robot readers, a scenario in which human beings are almost irrelevant. Expect an industry-wide backlash to follow.
Marketing, advertising, and PR
Programmatic advertising is already commonplace on social platforms and websites. Meanwhile, AI-enhanced customer relationship management (CRM) applications, such as Salesforce.com’s Einstein and SugarCRM’s Hint, are helping marketers to gather and manage their sales leads, and to extract patterns and predictions from reams of prospect data.
Elsewhere, PR firms are exploring the automation of other repetitive, process-driven tasks, such as the production and distribution of press releases. In these applications, the same upsides and downsides apply as in the world of journalism.
Some customer contact roles are heavily scripted, regulated, and targets-based, making them algorithms in all but name. This is one reason why chatbots, voice recognition, and related technologies, are set to transform the customer contact market as they become the preferred interfaces between consumers/citizens, organisations, and services.
The human employment impacts of this will be significant, especially in areas where call centre work has replaced industrial opportunities. In the UK, one million people currently work in some 5,000 call centres, according to the union Unison.
Medicine, health, and social care
Robot companions for lonely people? Some analysts and commentators have lamented the coming ‘dehumanisation’ of care, with humanoid machines replacing nurses, doctors, and carers.
That said, the assistive applications of robotics and AI will be legion in a world of soaring 65+ populations (17 million by 2035 in the UK alone) and falling social care investment (down by one-third per capita over the past decade).
Light exoskeletons, 3D-printed limbs, smart medical aids, autonomous vehicles, and more, may help people with disabilities, claim UK-RAS researchers, while smart devices in homes, hospitals, and residential facilities will help anyone who is reliant on external assistance.
The UK hosts a number of leading university research projects – at Bristol, Hertfordshire, Oxford, Sheffield, Edinburgh, and elsewhere – exploring how robotics and AI technologies can help ageing, sick, or disabled people to live more independent and fulfilling lives: a programme of assistive and rehabilitative care, rather than the dehumanised world that some have warned about.
Meanwhile, tele-robotics will connect people to remote doctors, friends, and family members, as will the related fields of virtual and augmented reality.
In some parts of the world, drones and aerial robots are cutting the delivery time of life-saving medicines from days to minutes in remote areas. One such is the ZipLine project that is being trialled in Rwanda.
AI and image recognition are already being used to help doctors diagnose and treat serious illnesses, and to detect – or predict – tumours earlier. Robot-assisted microsurgery may further extend the ability of doctors to treat serious conditions, while smart glasses have been developed at Microsoft to help visually impaired people to recognise objects.
Extreme environment robotics
The UK will spend £2 billion every year for the next 100 years cleaning up its hazardous nuclear waste, so robotics represents a £200bn opportunity in one industry alone – not just a financial one, but also an opportunity to take humans out of harm’s way.
Nuclear fusion is another area where haptics, AI, and autonomous/remote systems can reduce the need for risky human intervention in extreme environments.
Search and rescue robots, smart oil fields, and the remote maintenance of offshore wind farms are further applications in which the UK is conducting world-beating research. Meanwhile, aerial and marine drones can help to monitor climate change and predict natural disasters, such as flooding, storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions.
Smart robots and autonomous vehicles may help to transform the time-consuming and expensive tasks of repairing roads, buildings, street lights, and other parts of the built environment. For example, aerial survey and repair drones could do away with the need for expensive scaffolding.
In the UK, there are a long-term plan for robots to replace diggers in Leeds and turn it into the world’s first self-repairing city. Meanwhile, Oxfordshire County Council is developing a transit strategy that embraces autonomous vehicles. There, AI and predictive analytics are already providing early warnings of travel problems in the region.
If human beings are put front and centre of this debate, then human lives can be enhanced by these technologies, which offer transformative opportunities for economic renewal and new job creation.
However, if organisations focus solely on the prospect of saving money by replacing human workers en masse, then very real, long-term societal problems will result – especially if there are no mechanisms in place to counterbalance these trends, such as a universal income, or a so-called ‘robot tax’.
UK-RAS, the UK’s research organisation for these technologies, predicts that true AI – self-aware machines that can think for themselves and make rational, emotionally intelligent choices – will emerge by 2050. So we have until then to get the balance right.