2020 is the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, caused by a coronavirus. First off, I’d like to point out the single best writer on the topic, Erin Bromage, if you actually want to understand what the virus is and how it spreads:
- April 19, 2020 – the likely history of how the virus spread.
- May 10, 2020 – the real risk levels of various activities.
Wellllll….robots don’t get covid (though someone is probably readying a training dummy with symptoms) so how does the pandemic affect Robots That Jump?
The answer is simple: tech-utopians decry our non-acceptance of robots everyhere, and hope maybe this will force us to see the future.
All over the world, the response of those who boost humanoid robotics as “the future” to the pandemic has been the gnarly hope…a hope that people will start using humanoid robots due to the pandemic, like we’re supposed to.
This hope is evident in the response of two industries: Robotics, and Virtual Reality. Both are “high tech” big ideas that has been pushed for over 100 years as “the future” but yet haven’t gotten the widespread adoption of cars, radios, or smartphones. Interestingly, VR headsets aren’t selling in 20202, despite the fact that everyone is at home. Why? they are the future. Why, asks Silicon Valley, aren’t people accepting the future?
Puzzled, robo and VR evangelists see Covid-19 as a way to force people to accept that humanoid robots are “almost here”, and will form a big part of their future. People’s limited mobility, and the fact that a robot can’t get infected, provides a test case for robots in society.
And, at first glance, it makes sense – a robot can’t get infected, right? But basically this is PR, if not religious preaching.
Case in point: India, where there are lots of sick people in hospitals. Can robots help?
The headline from tech magazine Protocol, “Rise of the Robots: COVID-19 is Causing a Hesitant India to Welcome Automation” is typical of the robo-mumbo-jumbo announcing there is finally a compelling reason to put humanoid robots everywhere.
The article covers some predictable, but useful things – e.g. not having a human present during an interview might reduce infection, robots can clean floors, that might be contaminated, and so on.
However, the real agenda is clearly that (1) humanoid robots must be the future, and (2) the pandemic is making people realize they must be their future.
A great quote:
“…Arun Sundararajan, an NYU Stern School of Business professor researching how digital technologies transform society told Protocol that he believes a new tech paradigm will emerge after the pandemic recedes.
‘Crisis can be sort of a catalyst or can speed up changes that are on the way — it almost can serve as an accelerant,’ he said.“
I don’t think the professor actually meant “almost” – it is “on the way,” and you better use the pandemic to start practicing for your robot future.
In other words, the pandemic is just forcing something that must happen in the future faster – a specific kind of technology (humanoid robots) that is inevitable as death and taxes. The hidden emotion among techies: we probably should be glad that the pandemic is making us wake up and see our predestined future.
In practice, we don’t have useful robots to do many of the things we need in a pandemic – observant care of sick patients, using advanced AI to screen symptoms, cleaning complex medical devices in hospitals, doing contact tracing in the field to snuff out outbreaks (as was done effectively in Vietnam, limiting their 2020 covid surge).
All of these would be a welcome use of robots – but there are no “agile” or “smart” robots around that can actually do any of this!
Robots can’t clean bedpans. Robots can’t sterilize equipment except by spraying the whole device – they aren’t dexterous enough to use cloth and cleaner on odd-shaped parts. Robots can’t drive cars (wait, can’t we get them a self-driving car? No.) Robots can’t ask people questions any better than an automated phone support system. Robots aren’t needed to monitor patient’s vital signs.
So, the main purpose of humanoid robots seems to be to “reassure” people, or bark orders from a big metal and plastic puppet. The type of dexterity that would make a humanoid robot useful (e.g. helping a patient walk down the hall) is not available. Consider that even getting out of a car is too much for the vaunted Boston Dynamics acrobat-robot, despite its acrobat skills:
These jumps are entertaining, but the machine lacks the ability to “map” these motions to other activities. A human that is able to do backflips would be able to easily guide a patient down the hall, even if they had never done so. In contrast, the robot, like all current AI, is domain-specific. It’s ability to do backflips is confined to backflips. It can’t apply this dexterity to help patients walk. You would have to start over and do a long and energy-intensive “deep learning” training set specifically to walk patients around.
What are we left with, when robots can’t do anything requiring the dexterity of a nurse? Greeters, Lecturers, and Cops.
- Greeters replace a microphone + phone scripts with a big electric puppet barking friendly messages.
- Lecturers read a script, informing us of danger.
- Cops order us to do stuff.
Is this really a good use of resources? Any of the above could be accomplished with a recorded message, graphic wall poster, or video.
But if you’re trying to make robots real, you map your clanking mannequins to these tasks. The reason is that you feel it is very, very important that people understand humanoid robots are the future… Thefore, you loan out your laboratory electric puppets to hospitals to remind everyone that they are the future. Never mind that these “robots” are just glorified microphones or megaphones.
Another wonderful quote from the same Protocol article:
“…UK-based data analytics firm, GlobalData, has said that a shortage of personal protective equipment will drive adoption of robots to treat COVID-19 patients in India...”
This is INSANE. Wouldn’t the cost of a humanoid robot be better spent on masks and other Personal Protection Equipment (PPE)? How many masks, gloves, PPE could I buy for the cost of renting just one greeting robot?
The goal of covid-robots is not to improve efficiency. The goal is to awe the incoming, sickly humans with the future. But these greeter-bots aren’t doing anything much different than radio-controlled, tele-operated radio “robots” did 50 years ago in shopping malls. Mostly, people are just creeped out by this stuff.
Think about it: Do you want a big electric puppet as your final companion during a serious illness? Apparently some people thought Pepper, (the robot you’re not supposed to have sex with), was the perfect end-of-life friend.
Lamentable quotes from Pepper:
“…Please, wear a mask inside,” it said in a perky voice. “I hope you recover as quickly as possible…”
“…I pray the spread of the disease is contained as soon as possible…”
“…Let’s join our hearts and get through this together…”
If you put up a sign with these messages, humans would assume they come from humans. If you have a robot say these messages, the popular perception is that the robot has ‘taken over’ from the humans and is running things now. So reassuring!
This is a huge fail of User Experience Design (UX).
To be fair, the hospital in questions has non-humanoid robots of the iRobot type which help with floor cleaning – but this is hardly news, since hospitals have been using these primitive kinds of robots since the late 1970s. Here’s a robot in an Indian hospital actually doing something…
Unfortunately, the same company has an insipid humanoid robot greeter for the sick:
“Hello, I hope you don’t die, but if you do, I hope is it a pleasant experience. We are here to serve.”
A movie of Pepper barking orders at humans in Germany:
Here’s the point: you could have put up a cardboard cutout of the robot with an attached speaker, and conveyed the same information. Better, since people would understand the cardboard cutout was created by humans, not a future overload beginning to order us around.
By tying a cop-robot into the pandemic, you’ve actually created and enabled the narrative that the various nutbars out there want you to believe.
You know what these guys would say about Pepper, don’t you?
The American version of the “big electric puppet barking orders” completely freaked people out in NYC Central Park, and was removed after hour because “it didn’t have a permit”:
Boston Dynamics probably knew that there would be a negative response, so it deployed its dog-bot Singapore, far away form the West. Really, there’s a bit of colonial thinking here. After the initial apparent success in containing the virus failed, the authoritarian government thought their best bet was to play right into the conspiracy nutbars who think the pandemic was faked to bring in robots, reptilians, aliens, whatever.
How to enable the fringe-y right? Give them a robot overlord in the park! Note: this “robot”, like others, is actually tele-operated by a remote human. Someone is basically flying a drone.
Video on Instagram at:
Frankly, we have a LOT of unemployed – why not send a person out, in a car with a megaphone and a face mask, instead of an expensive robot that removes the human job? As the posts at the top of the article show, the risk outside of infection is low, as long as you don’t pack people into parades.
Also note the cog-dissanyo dumbass of the person who wrote this article.
“…Dont worry about bumping into Spot as it is fitted with safety sensors to detect objects and people within 1m to avoid collision…Robots can observe safe distancing too!”
Safe distance is 6 feet or greater. 1m is three feet. The robot is modeling unsafe behavior.
Back to our India article. A priceless movie of a stiff electric puppet barking orders, apparently what robots will “do” in the future that must happen:
The Covid-19 pandemic is a great example of a human proble. Service robots (like a floor-cleaner) have some real value, but humanoid greeters and order-ers do not. Using these robots is an expensive waste of money that could be used for protective equipment.
And, the belief among tech-utopians that robots must be the future doesn’t justify diverting money from pandemic relief to push their techie religion.