25 years to the Singularity?

Photo by Arthur Ogleznev on Unsplash

Looking to the future

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?

25mm Memory Cube, c2045
25mm Memory Cube, c2045

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.

Where is my home robot?

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.

 

Dead robots

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.

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.

 

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positronic_brain

(2) https://newrobotclub.wordpress.com/2014/10/18/robots-in-the-home/

Vector

(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.

(4) https://newrobotclub.wordpress.com/2018/09/30/what-do-i-know-about-vesta/

So, what do I know about Vesta?

Is this a new convenience food?

I have to confess that the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the word “Vesta” is a kind of dried instant Paella. But having researched the word on Wikipedia, I’ve found that Vesta, in Roman religion, was the goddess of the hearth, home and family.

If you haven’t heard the rumours, I’d better explain that Vesta is apparently the code name of a special project that Amazon is working on to produce a home robot.

Before you say, “what about Alexa?”, well Alexa, though certainly robotic and also very helpful, does not move. Vesta, apparently, will move around your home.

Oh no, stairs!

All the so-called home robots I have seen so far either move a little on wheels (and do not like thick pile carpets), or they just swivel their camera eyes to look about, without moving their bodies. And none of the robots, rather like the Daleks, are able to climb stairs (as shown in this famous Punch cartoon).

Vesta, take me to bed!

Will Vesta be able to take me up to bed? I hasten to add that I am not suggesting Vesta will be a sex robot! I’m thinking of the day when I am older and even more feeble, and in need of a little help to get upstairs. Rather than buying a stairlift, I would like a robot friend to assist me (I don’t want my wife to put her back out!).

There was a flurry of reports, or rather rumours, about Amazon’s project in April this year, but since that time I have seen very little. One site back in April suggested that perhaps Amazon were trying to create something like Rosie from the Jetsons. Perhaps that will come eventually, but I have to say that I am rather concerned that Vesta will just be a slightly mobile version of Alexa, and not much taller than Alexa either.

And then there are the obvious worries about privacy. Will Vesta have eyes, and will her vision be interpreted at Amazon HQ?

Email message from Amazon: Dear Vesta owner, we have noticed that the paint in the small bedroom at the front of your home is in need of refreshing. Did you know that we have an offer on two litre cans of Dulux this month? Just ask Vesta to order you some today and it will be with you before 8pm tomorrow.

Hopefully Vesta will have on-board interpretation software and will only report back to Amazon for software upgrades . . . and to place your inevitable orders for products!

OK Amazon, I volunteer!

Another story in April was that Amazon would be looking for volunteers to “test drive” Vesta . . . well, if they happen to read this little blog, I would be more than happy to give Vesta a spin in my home and will report my findings on here. I’m not holding my breath, and I don’t need to be carried upstairs, well not just yet anyway.