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

[grow_thumb image=”https://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!)

  2. These ridiculous kind of anthropomorphic robots haven’t gained traction because people don’t want them. Assistive technologies and robotic devices … yes. But technologists beware. The very notion that we should put a smiley face on a machine is immensely patronising and suggests a mindset that lacks insight into both ageing and the individuality and capacity of 99% of older people. Please get real and don’t waste time developing more such robots. Focus on assistive, accessible and usable devices for all … without the smiley face.

  3. Ad van Berlo

    Dear Robert, Donna and Malcolm,

    You should not forget that similar things have been said when the first telephone, car, plane or http were shown: Why do we need this? It does not make any sense, etc. etc.
    So, don’t judge too negatively too quickly!!
    We have been exploring the development of social robotics from 2008 up to now, including Kompai (but the the company Robosoft went bankrupt), Nao from Aldebaran, taken over by Softbankrobotics (producer of Pepper), PAL robotics, etc. All these robotics have shown a lot of value in our understanding what older persons would do with or react on such machines. And indeed from various studies we found that people living alone can really build up some affection to such primitive machines easily. When you take them away again they were unhappy and sad.
    So, I see Pepper as a next step of a robot which is very limited in function, but has a very nice and friendly view. It is not too big and not too small. Most other robots were much more ugly or not attractive at all.
    I see a big future for robots such as now being developed by Boston Dynamics. They are still experimental but there dynamics and robustness is astonishing. Much progress has been made towards the giants that I saw 10 years ago in South Korea and Japan. So, I am sure that in another 10 years from now, these service robots will be very affordable and useful in support of a.o. care and help for the aged persons, when we are really suffering shortage in personnel!

    So, for me the Pepper show for your Parliament has been very useful in attracting attention to these developments. And that by itself should not be considered as sensational but asking for more attention and support in developing this kind of technology.

  4. I don’t entirely disagree with you, Ad … but the evidence of the success of robots in terms of companionship is, in my view, very weak indeed (the exception my lie in robotic pets). But if (as you suggest) robots really do make a positive difference for people that live alone – let’s make sure they’re developed with people of ALL ages in mind (who may want companionship and/or be lonely) rather than be seen as responding to some ghastly negative stereotype of older people (and, therefore, strengthening that stereotype).
    Perhaps the right focus, in fact, is on young people living away from home – they, after all, show the highest rates of loneliness. We’ll compare notes on robots in 10 years time! Cheers (and Happy Christmas!), Malcolm

  5. I’d like to make three points about all the hype around ‘robotics in social care’:

    1) We are using entirely too much care that could be avoided if we actively helped people live better for longer & recover as much independence after events that trigger decline (such as most hospital stays over a few days). If we did better prevention and recovery, and more re-abling care, we could then focus on solving the real underlying needs.
    2) Much of the foreseen role of “robotics” can be and typically is addressable through what we always used to call assistive technology. A pill timer is NOT a robot except according to the most all-inclusive, simplistic definition. Of course there are devices – some of them even with a degree of automation, that can do some useful tasks to increase ability and/or reduce risk. Again most of these would still not have (or need) the autonomous capabilities of a robot.
    3) One of the requirements of a “good carer” is that they demonstrate genuine empathy toward the cared-for. I have yet to hear of or see any robot that would pass that test – though I will keep an open mind!