A critical take on Pepper’s Parliament Question Time (UK)

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/103886629_mediaitem103886628.jpg” thumb_width=”150″ /]Perhaps this Editor should have been less credulous. Somewhere, this Editor failed to notice a mention in the press she picked up that Pepper’s Question Time before the Commons select committee on education had been fully prearranged and scripted. (Thank you and a Big Tip of The Hat to reader Alistair Appleby for pointing that out.) It made Pepper’s appearance a little less than All That Sensational–more like a pre-recording delivered by an automaton prompted through a Middlesex University student’s smartphone.

Mr. Appleby provided a link to a Wired UK article that bears close reading. It sharply critiques not only the presentation, but also the trivialization of what the select committee was really examining, which was the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” of large-scale automation and its disruptive effects on the work of the all-too-near future.

Wired‘s reporter Gian Volpicelli sat in the front row and acidulously observed that Pepper’s appearance was a PR stunt that detracted from the substantive (I think) conversation that preceded it.

“For one hour before Pepper’s triumphal entrance, three experts from UCL, Nesta and Siemens engaged just in that kind of nuanced, data-based, academic conversation with the Committee’s MPs. They studiously tackled issue after unresolved issue, from AI bias, to education reform, to pure epistemology. “What is knowledge? Why should we believe something?,” asked UCL professor Rose Luckin at one point. “What a wonderful philosophical discourse,” committee member William Wragg MP would remark – under the austere blue gaze of Maggie Thatcher’s portrait. “

It does sound like the usual academic drift-off into La La Land, making it a discussion on Big Issues That Make Your Head Hurt because they have a thousand possible outcomes out of H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley, but what is remarkable is that neither BBC News nor the Guardian saw fit to mention the experts’ testimony.

Mr. Volpicelli rightly labels Pepper’s appearance a media stunt that gained all the attention versus a real discussion about the societal effect of future robots. Will it be the Pepper-future of cute machines that can perform few tasks and are non-threatening? Will it be the Atlas-future, the one projected by Boston Dynamics’ humanoid athlete-robot that does parkour and skillfully leaps large boxes, funded by DARPA to be a search and rescue robot? Will the future belong to the weirdly humanoid Frubber-skinned Sophia, who fell into the ‘uncanny valley’ at CES last January [TTA 23 Jan] — the same CES where Pepper ‘fainted’ to a non-working slump (schlump?) More than likely, it will be the robotic arm that flips and bags the fast-food burger that is more of the immediate future–and displacing low-wage workers–than any of the above. We need to have a very serious chat about Pepper’s pointless parliamentary pantomime 

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  1. Robert Padwick

    I am of the opinion that this was a pointless pantomime that detracts from the whole purpose of exploring robotics’ benefit (or lack of) in helping the ageing population maintain their independence and maximise their quality of life.
    People want to talk to people and human touch. A robot cannot ever replace the role of carer because it can never interact with a human with or without cognition in tact.
    Replacing human action on a production line ‘to flip and bag a burger’ is a far cry from wiping someone’s bottom.

    • Donna Cusano

      Robots can supplement human carers. The Japanese have pioneered large robots that do heavy work–such as lifting and transfer–which are badly needed in care settings.(Why this type of robot hasn’t gained traction is beyond me–and perhaps they have other problems.) Kompai has developed an interactive robot that travels and responds per its touch screen with some success. (See our robotics coverage in the past) There are tabletop robots which for me are toy-like but seem to attract investors. Pepper is a bit of a ‘dumb show’ but in its very limited way could be useful in education. (I personally would like a cook and clean robot!)

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