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The lab and the world

Thebigbangtheorys04e01mkv_000002419.jpg"Robots will only take over the world if we tell them how to do it," said Bill Smart at this year's We Robot. It's a comforting thought along the lines of the statement a friend made at the height of the Cold War: "They won't blow up the world - it would be bad for business."

Smart had, a few minutes earlier, proved his point by demonstrating how a robot really works. You can try this at home. Get three people to connect up in a row; the one in the middle is the robot's vision system, while the one on each side is an arm. The robot can move around and use its arms. Off in a corner, back turned, place a fourth person. That is the brain/control center, and can only ask yes/no questions - "Is there a box?" "Is the box more than five feet away?" - and issue basic instructions. "Move forward five feet." "Turn 30 degrees." Tell the brain: make the robot pick up the box lid on that chair. Watch as they head off in the wrong direction and fall over the furniture.

Thumbnail image for Bill Smart - We Robot 2016.jpgYou can say to a human, "Drive at a reasonable speed" and usually trust the human's concept of "reasonable speed" is similar to yours. To a computer - robot - you have to specify the limits of "reasonable" to within a millimeter. This sort of thing, he said, is why robotics is hard.

The whole thing reminded me of a presentation I saw some weeks back at Travel Technology Europe, a great example, I thought at the time, of why predicting the future is so hard - and how easy it is to look foolish doing it when you're speaking from just one perspective.

The speaker, Joakim Everstin, head of innovation and tech evangelist for the computer reservation system Sabre, was trying to get his audience to imagine the mindset of the next few generations of customers. Technologically, generations are getting shorter. Today's 30-year-olds grew up with instant messaging; 20-year-olds grew up with texting, Facebook and MySpace; 15-year-olds Instagram and Snapchat, ten-year-olds Facetime. Soon, you'll be able to date someone quite precisely by the form of technological interaction they prefer.

6E5QvpzC_400x400.jpgTo demonstrate his point, Everstin pulled up the famous video of the one-year-old trying to pinch-zoom a magazine picture (YouTube) and read out the parent's slogan: "To my daughter, a magazine is an iPad that doesn't work." And then he said, "For the rest of her life, that's how she's going to think."

Well, now, I don't think so. I'm betting on the one-year-old and against your man futurist. She *isn't* going to think that way her whole life because she is not a robot. Even before the end of the video she had learned that some iPad-ish things don't work like iPads. This is the great thing about human children: they learn stuff, like what to expect when encountering different types of objects and how to make sense of the unknown. We are amazingly adaptable. What's astonishing is that the toddler recognized the kinship between the iPad and the magazine and logically applied her experience of one to the other.

Another of his examples of an attempt to match the younger generation's expectations is a "smart table" in a Dubai Pizza Hut that allows you to order a pizza by touch. You work with an image you can enlarge and shrink, you can divide it in half, add toppings...and while I can see the novelty might be fun - once - it's a lot quicker to just tell someone "medium, thin crust, sausage, extra cheese", and hungry people don't say, "Let's go to the place with the cool touch-ordering system" any more than they tolerate a robot that takes 28 minutes to unpack their Chinese food. (Another Smartism: always check how much the robot video has been speeded up.)

It's not news that none of us predicts the future particularly well. The "design for how the next generation thinks", however, means frustration for the rest of us if every service and technology is designed with a single set of imaginary expectations in mind.

I have a number of friends with kids under ten, and I don't see any of them refusing to read books because they don't have search boxes, or to ride a bicycle because it doesn't have a backup video camera like their parents' car. They have considerable comfort with technologies that to adults are "new" but to them are "we've always had that", but that's not the same thing.

The real things to worry about are rather different. For example, years ago someone advised me that to get through London's crowded sidewalks at speed the best idea was to look down and never meet anyone's eye. "They'll move out of your way," he said. Twenty years later that's a dangerous strategy because everyone else has adopted this mode of behaviour, and the burden is on those who do not walk the street absorbed in their mobile phones to avoid the rest. It's therefore arguable that today's younger generation will require people movers everywhere, so the foot traffic is all one-way and the danger is minimized.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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