Category Archives: Care Robots

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.

Caring robots – more dangerous than killer robots?

BCS-rgb-1024On Wednesday 9th March, I went to a very interesting meeting of BCS Sussex at Sussex University. I was surprised to find that the meeting was free of charge, open to non-members like myself, and also that we were welcomed with an excellent buffet spread of food and drinks (including wine).

BCS Sussex is a regional branch of BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT. Formerly known as the British Computer Society, BCS is the world’s leading industry body for IT professionals with a global membership of over 75,000 people.


Blay Whitby

The lecture, entitled “Caring robots – more dangerous than killer robots?”, was given by Dr Blay Whitby, a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sussex. He is also Visiting Lecturer, Imperial College, London, and Visiting Professor, The Technical University of Vienna.

Artificial-Intelligence---A-Beginner's-Guide-(Oneworld-Beginners'-Guides)Blay Whitby is a technology ethicist, philosopher and lecturer, specialising in computer science, artificial intelligence and robotics. He is concerned with the importance of widening engagement in science and increasing levels of debate in ethical issues, and is a member of the BCS Strategic Ethics Forum.

AI_TitlePageHis book Artificial Intelligence: A Beginner’s Guide is available from Amazon.

The published description of the talk, which I read beforehand on the BCS website, sums it up very accurately. Blay presented his ideas and views with such enthusiasm and passion that it was a most enjoyable evening. Here is the original synopsis:

It might seem, at first glance, that military robotics raises many more ethical worries than does the use of robots in caring roles. However, this superficial impression deserves revision for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is overwhelming evidence that robots are a very effective tool with which to manipulate human emotional responses. It might theoretically be possible to do this only in ethical ways of benefit to individuals and society. Unfortunately there has been little or no discussion of exactly what these ways might be. For the caring robots now being developed by the private sector there is no guidance whatsoever on these issues. We can therefore expect at best, the manipulation of emotions in order to maximise profits. At the worst we can expect dangerous mistakes and disreputable deceit.

There has also been very little discussion outside the specialist field of robot ethics of just which caring roles are suitable for robots and which roles we might wish, on good reasoned grounds, to reserve for humans. This is surely a matter that deserves widespread public debate.

Finally, there is now a large number of international conventions, legislation, and rules of engagement which directly impact on the development and deployment of military robots. In complete contrast, the field of social, domestic, and caring robots is without any significant legislation or ethical oversight. Caring, not killing, is now the wild lawless frontier of robotics.

When using the term “Caring robots”, Blay included the following four themes, all of which need to have proper controls, which, it is very surprising to know, at the present time, they do not. I have done a little research and found some interesting videos and information online which I think illustrate these areas of concern rather well:

(1) Smart Homes (especially when these are intended for elderly inhabitants)

Here is a video which shows the way things are going, but it doesn’t really persuade me to think about trying to implement much of this technology in my own home:
The smart home of our dreams is almost here:


(2) Cyber Therapy

This is a link to the UCL website for “Student Psychological Services”. The computer program CALM (Computer Aided Lifestyle Management) is “an online multimedia programme available to all students at University College London. It uses interactive self-help tools to identify, motivate and educate you around issues such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, stress and substance misuse. Once you have identified any issues, CALM can help you to deal with your thoughts and feelings associated with them.” The program/programme can also be accessed by Sussex University students.


(3) Robot Nannies

Apparently, in Japan, it is already legal to leave your child in the care of a robot. Thankfully this is not the case in Europe . . . yet). The following is an interesting video from 2011 about the prospects of future robot child care:

The heading “Robot Nannies” can also include care of the elderly. Japan is leading the world with research into ways of caring for its growing elderly population. One robot mentioned by Blay was “Robear”. Robear is an assistant at present, helping with the heavy lifting side of elder and patient care, but it is easy to see how, with a little more work, much more can be achieved, and much could go wrong.


(4) Affective Game Engines

Here is an example, from December 2012, of how phsyiological signals can be made to affect computer game content:

I’m sure you will agree that we are at the very early stages of development with these four topics, and also that improvements must be made. Blay stated that there has been a tradition of amateurism in IT, and that the BCS is actively trying to change this.

I will finish with two links to important further reading which I found as a result of notes taken during the evening. First of all, Blay asked us if we had read the original Alan Turing paper from 1950 entitled Computing Machinery and Intelligence. He recommended it as a very readable paper which, of course, links in with the recent successful films Ex_Machina and The Imitation Game. If you would like to download a PDF file of Alan Turing’s paper, click here:

In September 2010, Blay Whitby was one of a group of experts drawn from the worlds of technology, industry, the arts, law and social sciences, who met at a Robotics Retreat to discuss robotics, its applications in the real world and the huge amount of promise it offers to benefit society. They considered Isaac Asimov’s famous three laws of robotics and concluded that they were not written to be used in real life, mainly because they simply would not work in practice. They came up with five ethical rules for robotics and have invited comments and discussion points to be sent to them. You can read more at the following link, together with their suggested five rules, and send feedback to the experts if you wish.