Fairfax Tech Column

Fairfax Tech Column

25.1.2019 Fairfax Tech Column 131


If you have seen the comedy film, Why Him, you will remember the voice of Kaley Cuoco (famous for her role as Penny in The Big Bang Theory) as Justine, Laird’s in-home artificial intelligence. Justine is incredibly helpful – some might say a little too helpful – and is constantly listening and offering advice as you move throughout Laird’s house.

This is a fictional movie so obviously nowhere near the truth.

Hold on for just one second.

Henn na Hotel in Japan employed 243 robots in 2015 to make the hotel the most efficient in the world. That included access to the virtual assistant robot, Churi, in every hotel room. Guests started complaining about the attention though. If you snored while staying in a room you may be woken up in the middle of the night by Churi saying, “Sorry, I couldn’t catch that. Could you repeat your request?” Even having a simple conversation in your room with another guest would cause interruptions from Churi. This is not the hotel to stay in if you are paranoid and think that someone is listening – because they definitely are!

Churi was fired.

Humanoid concierge robots that couldn’t answer basic questions were not proving to be very useful.

Fired.

Surely bellhop robots that carried luggage to a set room would be useful? Not when they can only carry luggage on flat surfaces and they could not negotiate their way to every room.

Fired.

In fact, half of the robots were recently fired in sweeping changes throughout the hotel. Luckily there is no robot union otherwise there may have been discussions about retraining and being redeployed elsewhere in the hotel.

Bottom line – they were just not good enough at their jobs.

Is that the end of the robot revolution? Not at all – in fact I see it as just the beginning.

Sure, Henn na Hotel tried an experiment with robots that didn’t prove that successful. There always has to be someone who leads the way and breaks new ground so that others may follow. I am sure that right now, new and improved versions of the robots at Henn na Hotel are being tested and modified and refined. The general public would like to see some robotics. In a recent British survey, 27 per cent of people think a home robot could save them two hours a day. Simple housework – such as cleaning – seems to make sense. I already use a very basic robot at my work and home but it is very much a first revision. Improvements are constantly being made.

In that same survey, 60 per cent of people believe there will be a robot in every home within the next 50 years and only a quarter of them can’t imagine a life without a robot as a part of the family.

Hold on.

A part of the family? I will accept – just – a family pet being a part of the family but a robot?

When you also consider that 20 per cent of people say they want a robot to simply keep them company you start to understand the part robots may play in our future lives. It may be scary and it may be fanciful – but more than likely it is going to be reality.

Keep an eye on robot developments. You will see a major advance on the news from time to time but you can be assured that for every one that makes the news with a major breakthrough, there are thousands of other people researching, testing and experimenting to push the boundaries. The next time you visit a motel or speak to someone on the phone, just ask if they are real or a bot. The answer may surprise you.

Mathew Dickerson