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The age of intelligent robots

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

Last month a callow youth with the unprepossessing name of Eugene Goostman made a landmark achievement in the august surroundings of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy: He was able to convince the judges for a third of the time that he was a 13-year old Ukrainian boy and not the “chatbot” that he really is.

In so doing, “Goostman” passed the Turing test, named after mathematician Alan Turing in his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.”

British organizers of the competition were overexcited at young Goostman’s achievement. It is proving to be an interesting landmark year for robots, perhaps less so for humans.

Also last month, Japan’s SoftBank Corporation produced what it claimed was the world’s first humanoid robot that can communicate and read people’s emotions.

Pepper, as the robot is called, is about 120 cm tall and weighs 28 kg, and has censors to monitor what is going on around it to make what Masayoshi Son, SoftBank’s chief executive, called “independent decisions.”

Son played with Pepper and showed how it could read his emotions and realize that he was smiling. Son said, “One hundred years, 200 years or 300 years from now, people will probably recall today as an historic day in which computers changed.”

There is always, of course, the leading question as to whether robots are the friend or the foe of humans. Indeed, centuries before the Luddites burst on the scene wrecking machinery, people were afraid of the march of machines. Queen Elizabeth of England refused an inventor who came to her in 1589 with a request for a patent for a stocking frame knitting machine. He was hoping that his device would save workers the effort of hand-knitting. The queen sent him away with a flea in his ear.

“Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider, thou, what the invention would do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring them to ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars.” Lee had to leave England.

Robots are potentially coming on the scene so quickly across such a broad range of jobs that large numbers of workers must fear that robots may make them redundant. Some leading economists have claimed that recent jobless growth has happened because of the intrusion of robots into what was previously human space. There has, in fact, been a spate of economic papers pointing out the rapid advance of robots, especially in the middle range of jobs, leaving high cognitive thinking and low manual work to humans.

Only 10 years ago, two researchers claimed that driving a car demanded too many complicated reactions to be susceptible to robot takeover. Yet, today Google claims that its driverless car is safer than any human-driven one.

Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University note: “Occupations that require subtle judgment are also increasingly susceptible to computerization.

“To many such tasks, the unbiased decision-making of an algorithm represents a comparative advantage over human operators. In the most challenging or critical operations, as in ICUs, algorithmic recommendations may serve as inputs to human operators; in other circumstances, algorithms themselves will be responsible for making the appropriate decisions.”

Some estimates are that 140 million full-time knowledge workers could lose their jobs to robots as technological progress advances from mechanizing manual jobs to a wide range of cognitive tasks, which have hitherto remained a human domain.

Using complex matrices taking account of factors like assisting and caring for others, including persuasion and negotiation; social perceptiveness, including fine arts and originality; and manual dexterity, including finger dexterity and cramped space, Frey and Osborne calculate that telemarketers are the most vulnerable group, with a 0.99 probability of being replaced, as big data and smart machines advance.

A probability of 1 implies certainty. Accountants and auditors (0.94), retail sales staff (0.92) and real estate agents (0.86) had better watch out, while airline pilots (0.55) and economists (0.43) look vulnerable. Recreational therapists (0.003), dentists (0.004) and clergy (0.008) are super-safe for the moment.

Bill Gates, the co-founder and former CEO of Microsoft, also backed up the academics’ findings with his experience in practical business. He did not use the term “bots” but preferred “software substitution” when he spoke to the American Enterprise Institute.

“Software substitution, whether it is for drivers or waiters or nurses … it’s progressing. … Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of the skill set. … I don’t think people have that in their mental model.”

How poor are the prospects for humans? Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have written about the coming “Second Machine Age.” In an interview with Business Insider, Brynjolfsson described himself as a “mindful optimist”: “We can have a lot more wealth and have it as shared prosperity, but the mindful part is also important.

“We’re going to have to adjust our policies, our skills, our organizations to keep up with the technology. It’s not going to happen automatically. If we don’t start paying more attention to these issues, we won’t necessarily have that good outcome that we all hope for.”

He called for a radical revision of education. “We need to cultivate those kind of creative skills that are more in demand. The word ‘job’ really only existed for about 300 years, and it boiled down to making people almost cogs in a machine. Those kinds of routine instruction-following jobs are being automated away. What’s more important are creative skills and our schools aren’t structured to teach those.

“When you think about it, for the 20th century they were focused on getting people to sit quietly in rows of desks and just follow instructions as best they could. That’s not the kind of education we need.”

The Japanese may also have a different view from Europeans and Americans, fed by a diet of science fiction that sees robots taking over the world and using their computer-assisted brains to turn against clumsy feeble humans.

Minoru Asada, head of cognitive neuroscience robotics at Osaka University, said, “I see robots as a kind of partner or friend of people.” He foresees that in five years’ time there may be prototypes of robots for home use, more useful than Pepper in helping to do chores and look after an aging population.

The Brits at the Royal Society were excited by Eugene Goostman, and British newspapers wrote glowing accounts. Others were skeptical.

Andrew Leonard wrote sarcastically in Salon: “Our robot overlords have arrived. A ‘supercomputer’ has finally passed the Turing Test! Except, well, maybe not. Here’s what actually happened: For five whole minutes, a chatbot managed to convince one out of three judges that it was ‘Eugene Goostman’ — a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy with limited English skills.”

Leonard claimed that Turing (who would have been 102 this month; he died at 41) would have assumed that the artificial intelligences of the future would have mastered proper grammar.

Goostman’s limited English and his youth are part of his natural cover story. He is “not too old to know everything, and not too young to know nothing,” according to Vladimir Veselov, one of his creators. He was developed by three programmers: Veselov, who was born in Russia and now lives in the United States; Ukrainian-born Eugene Demchenko, who now lives in Russia; and Sergey Ulasen.

Supposedly Goostman’s father is a gynecologist, and Goostman has a pet guinea pig: “My mom is always shouting that ‘this dirty pig is a pig anyway, in spite it is ‘Guinea’, and wants me to give it as a gift to anyone of my friends for their birthday.” (This says a lot about Goostman’s level of intelligent discourse and joined up thoughts.)

Poor boy, Goostman was evidently exhausted by success and taking time off after fooling the Turing judges, because he was not available for chatting or asking questions on his site early last week. Goostman did his work establishing his credentials by computer exchanges.

Minami, the offspring of the fertile mind of Osaka University’s Hiroshi Ishiguro, tries to ply her skills face to face. Her supporters say that, even close up, she could fool people for a short while that she is a real human being and not an android. “It took me several minutes to realize that she was not a human chatting away,” said one university professor who watched Minami in public recently. “It was only when I got close up and saw her hands that I realized, she was an android.”

SoftBank’s Pepper is clearly not human, but what has surprised people in the robot business is the low price, which the company has set at ¥198,000 (less than $2,000) when the robot goes on sale in February.

“I would have expected another zero,” said one professor. “Son is obviously determined to test the market. That is the mark of an entrepreneur. Contrast how cautiously Honda has behaved with its robot Asimo (which played soccer with U.S. President Barack Obama).”

Even so, there are still open questions about SoftBank’s Pepper, notably the use of the Internet Cloud database and the monthly rental charges for it. Son is obviously determined to promote the invasion of the robots. Watch out.

Kevin Rafferty, a professor at Osaka University, was executive editor of the Indian Express newspaper group.