These Are the Droids You’re Looking For

My generation of geeks was raised on Star Wars, Transformers and Terrahawks. OK, maybe I’m the only one who had nightmares about Zelda, but these shows were important. They defined for us the robot as something physical. A creature of action and interaction, hewn from steel and silicon.

Today the robots that excite us most continue to follow this model. From Boston Dynamics’ Atlas to the new Star Wars’ BB-8. Lifelike androids and sleek drones.

But these will not going to be the robots that have the greatest impact on our lives in the near future. Instead, these are the droids you’re looking for:

1. The Office Bore

The first place you’re really going to notice robots in the next few years…

Actually scratch that. You probably won’t notice them at all. You’ll just notice that half your colleagues have disappeared. And not because some Hal-esque machine is bumping them off.

The Office Bore is a limited artificial intelligence that cane be rapidly programmed to replicate many human tasks: administration, customer service, reconciliation, data entry and correction. All the sorts of white-collar busy work that should have been eliminated the first time around in the digital revolution, but wasn’t because none of our systems talked to each other properly and we designed the user interfaces so badly.

A limited AI can overcome problems like a lack of interface between systems by pretending to be a human being when it needs to. Because processing power is so cheap now, the efficiency overhead in this is less of a problem.

The Office Bore lives in the machine, never sleeps and just quietly gets on with the tasks it has been set, forever. It won’t kill you, but it might take your job and you’ll never see it coming.

2. The Phantom Pilot

Human beings are an expensive, and let’s be honest, unreliable way to pilot machines. As I often point out, we’ve long known that machines can fly and drive better than we can: the US Navy first handed landing on aircraft carriers over to machines back in the 60s. It’s only a matter of time before machines replace us in the drivers seat altogether.

Self-driving cars that carry passengers will be held back by regulation. But small parcel delivery drones — on wings and wheels — will likely be here before too long.

Human beings do have the advantage of being good, general purpose units: once we drive a truck somewhere we can then get out, find the right parcel in the back, take it to the right door (sometimes) and find the right person to give us a signature. Robots that can do that are still some way off, but the sake of cheap, reliable delivery we might be willing to do some of the work ourselves or engineer alternative solutions.

3. Jack of One Trade

If there’s a repeatable task, physical or mental, then the chances are a machine can do it faster and more reliably than a human. As the cost of technology falls, you’re starting to see highly-specialised machines enter all sorts of trades. Like the variety of models of robot bricklayer entering the market now that can allow one person to do the work of many, and do it faster.

It’s estimated that the construction industry needs a million new recruits by 2020 to meet the housing targets laid out before yesterday’s increase to 400,000 by George Osborne. Not all of those million new recruits are likely to be human.

4. The Thin Controller

It now costs a tiny amount of money to connect something to the internet. With Republic of Things we do it for under £3, just using off-the-shelf parts.

The cost of cloud-based hosting and processing power is also trending towards zero. Which means that you can now put a lot of intelligence into just about anything for very little money. Book of the Future’s ‘law of ubiquity’, one of our five Vectors of Change, says that if there is a competitive advantage to be had from the application of technology then someone will do it. And competitive pressures will force everyone to follow suit (as long as the advance proves attractive to consumers: no-one needs a connected kettle).

There will be little pieces of smart technology in just about everything before too long: ‘thin controllers’, sensing data, learning and responding, like a Nest heating system. Doors that self-shut and lock if you forget. Tables that detect and charge devices. Lights that control themselves.

5. Pepper Potts

With all these slightly-smart devices around, and a wealth of information sources vying for your attention, you’re going to want some help controlling everything and filtering the signal from the noise. This is where your personal assistant, Pepper, comes in.

Pepper is also cloud-based but with access to all your personal information: contact books, banking, social networks, calendars, communications. She knows you better than you know yourself and interfaces with the digital devices and services that surround you to optimise them to your needs. She can control your environment, organise your diary, even shop on your behalf.

Now Iron Man fans may think this sounds more like JARVIS. So why have I called her Pepper? Because Pepper ends up running the company…

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Tom Cheesewright