First of all I would like to wish all readers of this blog a very happy Christmas, and I hope that next year will be much better for you.
As Christmas Day draws to a close here in the United Kingdom, it is time to turn off the tree lights in our living room and go to bed. As I go to leave the room, I simply say, “Alexa, turn off the lights please”, and she says “OK”, and off they go.
It is a simple socket, purchased in the Black Friday sale at Amazon for a few pounds, but together with my smart speaker (which, incidentally, has now taken over from the CD player), it has put us firmly into the world of robotic futures. I have suddenly realised that this is what it will be like when I have my own walking home robot servant.
I still have to say “please” and “thank you” even though I know it is not necessary at all.
One day, in the not too distant future I hope, Alexa will have legs and will walk around the house . . . but only when I want her to of course! She will become an accessory that I feel I can no longer do without, rather like the washing machine or the refrigerator.
At first I felt silly talking to a robotic switch, but now it is second nature. Perhaps with the advances in robotics that have been taking place due to the terrible pandemic, the walking home robot will not be so far away?
If Ray Kurzweil, the American inventor and futurist, is correct, and I think that he may well be, then the technological singularity will happen in just 25 years, by 2045. If that sounds a long way off to you, then consider this – young Prince William, our present Queen’s great grandson, will only be 32 years old. My two grandchildren, now each two years old, will be just 27. What changes will they experience?
According to Wikipedia, the technological singularity is “a hypothetical point in time at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unforeseeable changes to human civilization. Public figures such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have expressed concern that full artificial intelligence (AI) could result in human extinction. The consequences of the singularity and its potential benefit or harm to the human race have been intensely debated. Four polls of AI researchers, conducted in 2012 and 2013 by Nick Bostrom and Vincent C. Müller, suggested a median probability estimate of 50% that artificial general intelligence (AGI) would be developed by 2040–2050.”
Old computers for example
On average, I have replaced my home computer every four to five years, sometimes sooner than that if I can afford it. The computers aren’t worn out or broken, they just struggle to run newer, better software. And they also struggle with the demands that I put on them. I expect my computer to be able to edit high resolution A4 sized photographs; to edit and store good quality videos of my grandchildren growing up; to search the internet and give me almost instant results, and to show me television programmes that are beamed at it wirelessly.
Over the years, the time at which my computers have begun to seem old has got shorter – it has moved from three years down to two years (although my present computer is older than that!). This seems to reflect the general opinion that everything in the world of computing is advancing at a faster and faster rate.
When I had a British Sinclair ZX computer back in 1981, I was happy – and also amazed – to be able to play and program simple black and white games with the Basic programming language.
So those old fashioned Sinclair computers were 40 years ago, but look at how things have changed in just the last 20 years. Computers back in 2000 now seem very slow and rather clunky looking. The internet was much slower too. Everything is accelerating. In 1999 I treated myself to a bright orange Apple iBook G3 – I still have it, and it still works, but it is so dated now with its tiny screen, lack of wifi, poor sound quality and 3.2 GB hard drive.
So let’s jump forward 10 years from today
If we could jump forwards, perhaps another ten years from now, I expect that our present day laptop and desktop computers will seem even more dated than that clamshell iBook does to me today. So by 2045, what will things be like?
How about 25 years time?
25 years from now, portable computers will be significantly smaller, and with projected screens that are translucent and hang in the air. If you have watched The Expanse on Amazon Prime then you will know what I mean. Storage will be on solid blocks like large sugar cubes with each of the six 25mm square sides storing information. Light will be enough to keep the storage safe by generating the small amount of electricity needed to keep the files permanently. Just by holding the cube, the files will be unlocked by their owners touch and thoughts (although in 2045 we may still have to wear a small ear piece to pick up our brain waves), and can be transferred to the small computer.
Robots will be at our side, ready to help out by carrying shopping, helping with DIY, or just undertaking tasks by themselves while we do something else. I don’t believe that computers or robots will be a threat to us, but they will be able to independently reproduce by building copies of themselves, and those copies will be better than the originals. The first robots such as these, which were built by humans, will appear as clunky as Sinclair computers to the future robots which they themselves will build.
Oh yes, then there will be a rather clever development where a watch (no doubt a development of the Apple watch) works together with those small computers and storage cubes to beam sound directly into its wearer’s head! It won’t go through our ears, and nobody else will be able to hear it (unlike the annoying tinny sounds that emanate from headphones today). This incredible invention will also be a cure for some forms of deafness. And I almost forgot … mobile phones will be part of those small computers with the watch beaming the conversation into our heads. If you want peace and quiet, just take the watch off. We will have to wait a few more years after that for the words in our thoughts to be picked up by the watch, so one-sided phone conversations will still be an annoyance, especially on public transport … “I’m on the train…”.
My crystal ball is now clouding over so I guess I’ll just have to hang on in there for another few years to see some of these amazing inventions. I’ll be 90 in 2045, so my personal robot had better look after me properly.
The possibility of owning a useful home robot was my ultimate aim when I began this blog back in March 2014. I am no expert by any means, just an interested watcher, and in my opinion, I am no closer, five years on, to my dream of owning a robot like “Andrew” from the film Bicentennial Man, where he was played by the late Robin Williams. Bicentennial Man was based on a short story by Isaac Asimov.
If I only had a brain
What would Asimov make of the state of intelligent robots today? Who is going to invent the much needed “Positronic Brain”¹ that Mr Asimov first described in his robot stories from 1939. Eighty years on we still do not have anything like a home robot that can think for itself and also has a strong moral compass.
You may gather that I am rather disillusioned by this situation. Perhaps that explains why I have not felt the need to write regular posts for this blog? I think Asimov would be disillusioned too. Admittedly there are some amazing industrial robots, but they can’t go out and cut the grass, or paint the outside of their factories. They are still limited to the one operation that they were taught to do.
My Mum with her radiogram in 1967
Much the same applies to today’s so called home robots. I can go out and buy a robot vacuum cleaner, but it won’t fold the laundry for me … that is another robot under development. I can buy a robot to cut the grass, but that is all it will do … it won’t dig the garden or trim the rose bushes. I wrote about this situation here in October 2014², and it is still the same now. Thank goodness most of us have moved away from hi-fi separates. My laptop has the potential to do everything that my hi-fi stack system did, apart from playing cassette tapes or vinyl, and as far as I’m concerned, the resurgence in interest in those antiquated sound recording devices is mere nostalgia. I can still remember my Mum shouting at us when we were playing a little too energetically in the lounge near her record player, “mind my stylus” would ring out from the kitchen. One jump of the playing arm could completely ruin a record.
There have been three “deaths” of home robots in recent times. One big casualty was Jibo. However, now that I look back at the website, it seems rather obvious. With a price tag of $899, and a list of functions that seem to be so similar to Amazon’s Alexa that one is like a clone of the other, it is hardly surprising. I paid half price in a sale (£25) for my Echo Dot with Alexa.
The other two casualties have been Kuri from Mayfield Robotics, and Cozmo from Anki³. It is sad, and not a good sign for getting potential investors in a similar project, but those things are just not “proper” robots by my way of thinking. OK, I know it has to start somewhere, but really, a home robot must have legs, and must be able to move around the house on surfaces that include carpets … so that probably rules out a lot of robots, like Pepper, which have wheels or balls in their base.
Jibo’s price may well have been a problem
The text in this image sounds like Amazon’s Echo
This little robot would suffer on a thick carpet
The little Cozmo robot
Price is obviously going to be something that will put a lot of potential buyers off. But why not rent a robot, with the added bonus of free updates and maintenance? I believe Pepper is available in some countries with this rental payment system.
Will Vesta have legs?
My only hope at the moment would seem to be Amazon. My £25 Echo Dot is quite a bargain, and I already pay extra for Amazon Music so that is an added bonus for me. I can’t remember the last time I bought a music CD. Last year I wrote about Amazon’s new project which is supposedly for a moving home robot named Vesta4. A quick Google search only came up with results from April last year. Are Amazon still working on their robot? An Amazon search just found Vesta Beef Curry, Vesta Paella and albums by Vesta Williams, so, sadly, I am no wiser.
Update (12 May 2019)
Today I visited the Anki website. There is a sad pop-up notice on the home page (image right) which states that the company is no longer manufacturing robots. They are still available to purchase on Amazon, and apparently there is still support available.
(3) I see that Anki is still available for sale on Amazon UK for £154.99 although it is not on the manufacturer’s website. The company is now promoting Vector, and that robot is also available from Amazon UK, price £249.99. These seem to be merely expensive toys.