Tuesday, Oct 22, 2019 | Last Update : 11:47 AM IST

Would you date Alexa if she had a mind of her own?

THE ASIAN AGE. | SRIDHAR BALAN
Published : Sep 20, 2019, 2:19 am IST
Updated : Sep 20, 2019, 2:19 am IST

In the last two decades, both artificial intelligence and robotics have developed significantly and seem to permeate all aspects of our lives.

In the last two decades, both artificial intelligence and robotics have developed significantly and seem to permeate all aspects of our lives. Today, “Alexa” and “Cortina” are at our command and we can ask them to do anything. (Representational image/ Pixabay image)
 In the last two decades, both artificial intelligence and robotics have developed significantly and seem to permeate all aspects of our lives. Today, “Alexa” and “Cortina” are at our command and we can ask them to do anything. (Representational image/ Pixabay image)

Who are Baby Doll, Palki, Arya, Ramya, Zoey, Alice, Sansa, Aleena, Helen, Jane, Natasha and Alisha? Readers might mistake them for the latest wannabe starlets in Bollywood but they are actually the names of robots who take orders and serve customers in the fast-paced and competitive restaurant business in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru. Robots have improved over the years and have become almost human and are now called humanoids.

Though more common now, robots were a rarity when I was first introduced to them when I first visited Japan in 2001 as part of a delegation of publishers. While in Tokyo, we were taken to a model distribution centre for books which had almost perfected a supply chain management system. The Tohan Logistics Centre was a recently set up facility of the Tohan Company and was to be a “state of the art” logistics facility. The Centre was located a good two hours drive from Tokyo and we reckoned there must be a good reason for our hosts to include it in our itinerary.

There was and when we met the Tohan distribution manager, he mentioned that the distribution system was fully automated. Before taking us into the work area, the manager explained that the building, the exterior of which was done up in earth colours, was environment-friendly. It was designed to withstand earthquakes of moderate intensity, and rainwater harvesting was a special feature. About 4,200 tons of rainwater was recycled annually. The windows had double-glazing and were designed to let in maximum natural light and the air-conditioning ran on gas rather than on electric power.

In the work area, the supply chain was like an assembly line operation. The workers were at their appointed stations, packing the consignment into cartons which were then strapped by automatic machines at designated points on the conveyor belt. Computers, reading the packing slips on cartons automatically diverted consignments to different loading bays where they went into delivery trucks stationed there. For the first time, we saw four robots each in a locked enclosure in the work area.

Their function was to lift strapped bundles and place them on the conveyor belt. To ensure a smooth workflow, line supervisors oversaw operations. Computers monitored the workers and supervisors monitored the computers. At different landing bays, fork lifts loaded the trucks.

Everywhere, we saw a smooth, never-ending operation with a minimum of human intervention and also, perhaps, of error. We were curious about the robots which looked gigantic but could not get too close as the enclosures prevented access. We saw that they were robots and not humanoids at that stage of development.

We marvelled at the robots’ efficiency, working smoothly, not needing a coffee or restroom break. But even as we watched, a robot malfunctioned and an alarm went off. A supervisor rushed to unlock the enclosure even as the robot was now motionless. He spoke to a colleague over a walkie-talkie, some controls were adjusted and soon the robot was in action once again. He observed the robot for some time, there was another conversation with the colleague and soon, all was well. We were to later learn from our interpreter and guide, Eiko Sato, that the straps on the bundles were too tight and the robot was having difficulty in picking up the bundles. Dual adjustments needed to be done both on the strapping machine and on the robot to ensure smooth operations.

On the return ride back to our hotel in Shinjuku, we reflected that we had been shown a glimpse of the future, that seemed to be a constant work-in-progress. Robotic technology and automation would only increase from now on and humans would have to fit in. The Tohan Centre had been modelled after the Walmart model in the US. It had to improve on the “error rate” in dispatches. Walmart was then averaging eight mistakes per ten thousand order dispatches. The Tohan Centre had managed an efficiency rate of only three mistakes for one lac dispatches. In the few years it had been in operation it had already achieved an annual billing of 10 million Yen and was only operating at seventy per cent of its installed capacity. Japanese publishers were keen to use the Tohan distribution system. We had a look at the books that were being distributed so efficiently. They were all “manga” or the Japanese graphic novel which seemed to have taken the reading public by storm.

In the last two decades, both artificial intelligence and robotics have developed significantly and seem to permeate all aspects of our lives. Today, “Alexa” and “Cortina” are at our command and we can ask them to do anything. Robots, the empirical manifestation of artificial intelligence, can perform a range of tasks, from assisting in household chores, in complicated surgeries, to dangerous exploratory missions. To gain more acceptability, robots have developed more “humanoid” features complete with modern clothing and more often than not, a scarf nattily knotted!

Artificial intelligence has now entered school education as well. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has now decided to introduce Artificial Intelligence and Robotics ( some say rather belatedly) as an elective subject in classes 9-12 for students in all its schools. The syllabus, to be prepared in collaboration with IBM, will include creating awareness for school principals, a two-and-a-half day training session for teachers on foundational skills and more comprehensive sessions for students. Students will undergo a five-stage training which will include research- informed readings, customised online resources and hands-on projects. The curriculum includes orientation on artificial intelligence, ideation and innovation workshops on selected areas for AI deployment, including a minimum viable prototype deployment. The quest for imparting more ‘intelligence’ to the prototypes or humanoid robots will lead selected students to the Capstone Project where students will be mentored for “advanced prototype development”.

So far, we have been able to “control” robots because humans drive their functions on all aspects of their deployment. Even in surgery, a surgeon operates the controls on the robot. The CBSE has introduced artificial intelligence in the higher classes because the minds need to mature before the subject can be handled. Yet a school in Bengaluru has already harnessed robots to teach five subjects by rotation in Class 7. The humanoid robots dressed in formal female attire, along with the mandatory scarf, teach subjects like Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History and Geography. Built at a cost of `10 lakh each, the humanoids are interactive and ask questions of the students and suggesting better answers. One may well ask what is the role of the human teacher in all this? The school answers that under the Collaborative Learning Model (CLM), the man-machine team, in this case, the woman teacher, the robot and the students, collaborate in the classroom to “deliver” a lesson. While the robot goes about teaching, the teacher is supposed to be individually mentoring each student. Yet, the CLM collaboration seems to focus more on “delivering” the lesson and not on the learning process and how much is understood by the student.

We cannot assume that rationality will guide all human actions. The drones we use to photograph a family wedding and to deliver groceries and books to us can also deliver bombs. The recent bombing of the oilfields in Saudi Arabia which drove up oil prices, was by drones and no clear responsibility has been assigned as yet. In our quest to impart more ‘intelligence’ to our robots, there is the chilling prospect of them developing a mind of their own, raising visions of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds or The Terminator or Cyborg series.

To go back to our story of humanoids in restaurants, as interaction with robots draws patrons, the development of a closer relationship cannot be ruled out. A patron at one of the restaurants now only wants to be served by “Alisha”, his favourite humanoid!

The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books

Tags: humanoids, environment-friendly, robots