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So Aunty, So What?

Wednesday, 20 May 2015 | MYT 12:00 AM

When humans need not apply

Forget global warming and bad politicians. There’s a greater threat to humanity looming on the horizon – robots.

ROBOTS have long fascinated me, from the moment I discovered them in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Robot series more than 30 years ago.

What is amazing is that what was once pure science fiction has become reality in my lifetime. Robotics is now the biggest thing since the Internet. Japan, described as the world’s most robot-savvy nation, wants to lead the charge. Last Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched the Robot Revolution Initiative, partnering with the private sector.

Some of the biggest names like Toyota, Panasonic and Honda are on board. The latter is famous for its Asimo, touted as “the world’s most advanced humanoid robot” which has been in development since 1986.

The engineers working on “him” all grew up with Astro Boy, Doraemon and Gundam, and their ultimate aim is a “valuable partner that co-exists with humans”.

Hearing that sent me back to one of Asimov’s novels, The Naked Sun. The story is set on a colonised planet called Solaris, where the 20,000 human inhabitants are far more comfortable with the 200 million robots that serve them than other humans.

That may sound far-fetched but consider what’s happening in Japan. It was here that the Tamagotchi craze of the early 1990s (hand-held digital pets) started and led to Aibo the robot dog, which was launched by Sony in 1999.

By the time Sony stopped production, it had sold about 150,000 Aibos. The company continued to give repair services but that came to an end in July last year.

When 19 Aibos “died”, their grieving owners gave them “funerals” and kept their tagged remains in a temple. Theirs were first-generation Aibos with artificial intelligence (AI) that enabled them to develop personalities and learn from their owners.

Last month, the upscale Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo unveiled a very life-like humanoid robot called ChihiraAico as their greet-and-meet receptionist, who got a great reception from the shoppers and media.

The Japanese are, admittedly, rather unusual in their ready acceptance of humanoid robots in their midst but I don’t think other people are that far behind.

These days, many people seem more comfortable communicating via text, emoticons and emojis than talking face to face. It’s not quite Solarian behaviour but already social skills, decorum and nuances among younger folk are not quite what they used to be.

But Abe’s initiative is not about pet dogs and humanoid robots. It’s about utilising AI across a range of industries and services. Already widely used in manufacturing, robots are being utilised for agriculture, battlefields and space exploration. They are also in our homes, supermarkets, banks and hospitals.

In fact, a technology investment site I subscribe to is particularly excited about a United States company developing robotic surgeons. Elsewhere, automotive companies are going deep into driverless automobiles with prototypes being tested on roads.

The premise here is that humans are not perfect and, whether as drivers or surgeons, can make mistakes. As long as robots can do better than humans, they can be in the truck or bus driver’s seat, wielding the scalpel, prescribing drugs and more.

Like the Industrial Revolution more than 200 years ago, the robot revolution is bringing about great changes but perhaps with unimaginable consequences.

The YouTube video Humans Need Not Apply shows how horses that ran the Pony Express, farmed land and went into war were replaced by mechanical muscles; so too will the human mind be replaced by the mechanical mind in many jobs.

The robot revolution is unstoppable because it is all about economics. Automation did away with lots of low skilled jobs. But now there is a tireless robot (or bot for short) coming after your white-collar job that can crunch numbers, research faster, cheaper and more efficiently than you, puny human, can.

AI scientists are coming up with ideas to teach robots how to learn. Imagine my shock on finding out that even stock markets are not really run by human traders anymore but bots that have been taught to trade stocks with other bots.

Yuji Honkawa, a 47-year-old equities trader at the Tokyo Stock Exchange, lost his job after 20 years because automated traders could file orders much faster than him.

He is not alone. Bloomberg quoted him as saying 80% of his fellow traders had also left the industry.

“It’s kind of like The Terminator. The story is about humans and machines battling it out and in the end the machines exterminate all the humans,” he said.

If I thought my profession was safe, I was wrong. There are robot journalists too. According to the Humans Need Not Apply video, bots can write about anything. One company claims its artificial intelligence platform can create “narratives that rival your best analyst or writer, produced at a scale, speed and quality only possible with automation”.

The point of the video is that just like the horse that lost its job not because it got lazy but because it became unemployable, so too will humans lose out to increasing AI automation. And that will be the big problem when a large number of jobs no longer require humans, hence the title of the video.

In Asimov’s universe, robots are ruled by Three Laws to prevent them from harming humans and if robots did do evil, it is humans who made them do it.

In our universe, there are no Three Laws of Robotics. Because of that, humankind could well face its worst enemy in 14 years. That is the predicted date – 2029 – when artificial intelligence overtakes human intelligence and achieves “the singularity”, the point when men and machines converge, with machines ultimately taking over.

That will be the end of humanity, a scenario that the likes of Stephen Hawking believe will happen.

Which company is most single-minded in pursuing this singularity? The answer is Google, which The Guardian has described as “assembling the greatest artificial intelligence laboratory on Earth”.

Unbelievable as it seems, Google’s near dominance of almost every facet of our digital lives from ground up to sky down has spooked many who have likened it to The Terminator’s Skynet, the military artificial intelligence system spread out over millions of computer servers that became self-aware and wanted to kill and enslave humans. Don’t believe me? Just Google it!

> Aunty would like Stephen Hawking to have the last word on this: “If a superior alien civilisation sent us a message saying, ‘We’ll arrive in a few decades,’ would we just reply, ‘OK, call us when you get here – we’ll leave the lights on’? Probably not, but this is more or less what is happening with AI.” Send feedback to