Will the rise of the robots make us better humans?

Automation is one of the future technologies I use in my novels, but my vision of the late-21st and early-22nd centuries is likely a conservative prediction of what will be. The exponential nature of technology makes it difficult, if not impossible, to predict how technological advances will change human lives many decades from now. I do my best to extrapolate what’s happening now, aware that I may be overestimating some advancements while underestimating others.

Consider, for instance, robots taking our jobs. In Peer Through Time, a family dines in a restaurant with no human servers, submitting their order by touchscreen. That technology that is already here. I recently went to my favorite grilled-cheese sandwich eatery for the first time in several months. Though I was greeted by a nod from the human behind the counter, a new contraption stood between us: an automated ordering kiosk. I looked at the screen, beckoning me with its colorful, high-resolution display, then back at the human behind the counter.

“Either way?” I asked.
“Either way,” he said, before returning to a conversation with his co-worker, clearly indicating he didn’t particularly want to take my order.

I turned back to the machine. In clear, simple language, signs told me step by step what to do, but it was all intuitive anyway. Touch the picture of the thing you want to eat. Touch the picture of the other thing you want to eat, and so on. Confirm your entire order by making sure the pictures and text are correct. Swipe your card. You are number seven. Now wait. Watch your number rise on the electronic board displaying which order is coming up next. It’s the ultimate in immediate gratification. I might even pay more for this cool, easy service, but I don’t have to. It costs the owner less, so they don’t have to charge more.

But what of the two humans behind the counter, whispering between themselves while their customers point and swipe away at the kiosk? They’re still working. The place isn’t that automated, at least not yet. They’re making the food—with help from machines, of course.

At the grocery store, self-checkout stations have been around for some time, but at first, the technology was so clunky I couldn’t stand it. That’s still the case in some stores, but improvements are being made. For now, while grocery shopping, I choose a human cashier most of the time. Besides, it’s sort of like having a brief visit with a friend, since many of the cashiers at my local supermarket have been there for years.

It’s a different story at the local movie theaters, where human cashiers have been 100% replaced by kiosks. Touch the picture of the movie you want to see. A couple more taps and a swipe, and your tickets are printed out for you. There’s still human interaction when it comes to ordering snacks and drinks, but sometimes it seems the ticket machines have more life and personality than the disinterested staff minding the corn popper. Every once in a while, though, one of those young humans offers service with a smile, taking pride in their ability to socially interact face-to-face. They are the shining stars who will find success elsewhere, once theater snack counters become fully automated.

Humans have a history of being wonderful to one another, and of being horrible to one another. You don’t have to look far to witness a customer treating a cashier, or anyone in the service industry, as an inferior life form. Is it possible that the shift to automation will eventually put an end to such treatment, since there will be no more cashiers to treat with disdain? Or will people simply find new ways to demean each other?

I suspect it will be a little of both. Meanwhile, I welcome the already-in-progress automation revolution with a mixture of open-mindedness, skepticism, and concern for those who will be unable to adapt. In the long run, I believe putting machines to work for us will make the world a better place for humans, but in the near future, there’s going to be a lot of upheaval and turmoil.

Still, that’s nothing that we, as a species, haven’t gotten ourselves through before.

 
 

The above was inspired, in part, by the article 3 Predictions for the future of jobs, by Kristel Van der Elst.

Will we abuse our robots?

Humanoid robot unveiled at Beijing conference
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Some people find humanoid robots creepy. Why is that? I would venture to guess it’s the same characteristic that makes us wary of anything “other” or anything foreign. I once had a co-worker who said she was afraid of little people. Dwarfism, to her, was something sinister. Trying to reason with her, explaining that these were people with feelings just like her, did little to change to her mind.

While fear of the unknown may have been an evolutionary advantage for our ancestors, it can easily translate into intolerance and discrimination in today’s world. It may be so deeply ingrained in our psychological makeup that it persists despite reason or logic. But what does any of this have to do with humanoid robots? Nobody is claiming they are people with feelings and self-awareness.

No, not yet. But is it possible that could one day be the case? Below are some reports of a trend we’ll be seeing more and more: robots being commissioned to interact with humans in order to assist.

Bleep blorp: New Japanese hotel to be staffed by robots
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Can you imagine if robots like this began claiming self-awareness and rights? For my wild imagination, it’s not too much of a stretch. In my near-future science-fiction novel Peer Through Time, Kass is a humanoid robot, or android, who has achieved self-awareness as a result of his brain’s complexity. While he does suffer some mild abuse and intolerance from some not-so-nice human characters, I believe in reality it would be much worse.

Some humans abuse others for reasons that seem trivial to some of us. Skin color, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs are just a few examples we hear about on a daily basis. Some people seem to have a deep need to discriminate against and abuse others, and they’ll find any excuse to do so. If they can de-humanize their subjects in any way, they will. For much of history, slaves weren’t thought to be fully human. Extreme religious fanatics can convince themselves that the people they’re bombing are godless heathens whose deaths help rid the world of blight.

Humanoid robot can recognise and interact with people
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Robot abuse will likely occur whether or not our robots ever achieve consciousness. In the more likely scenario that they never do, some will abuse them simply because they exist. Isn’t there a part of you that thinks it might be fun to take out your aggression on a non-feeling entity that resembles a human? What if it resembled someone you dislike, or someone who has been mean to you? There might even one day be a market for robots made to resemble our enemies, just so we can kick, hit, or dismember them.

What do you think? As robots become more commonplace, will we start to hear news stories about abuse?

Read more about the fictional Kass at Pimp That Character.

Helping Readers Choose With Book Reviews

The more I learn about Amazon book reviews, the more I have to change my tune. Recently, I claimed that a book review can be as simple as two or three sentences. While that remains true, and a simple review can certainly help the author, it isn’t the most helpful type of review for the potential reader.

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In her article “What to Do When Amazon Pulls Book Reviews,” marketing expert Penny Sansevieri reveals some secrets she’s uncovered about why Amazon does, from time to time, make a book review vanish. A book’s set of reviews might be suspect if they can be linked to the author’s friends and family. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll pull those reviews, but it’s a factor that might contribute to the ultimate vanishing of those reviews.

Other factors might include reviews in which the reviewer doesn’t go into depth—or at least offer a couple of tidbits—about why they liked the book; multiple reviews coming from the same IP address; a book with only five-star reviews; and Amazon’s own constantly changing algorithms.


Book reviews exist, first and foremost, to help readers determine whether or not they should buy this particular book out of the millions available. As a newly published author, it was easy for me to lose sight of that and focus on the perspective of how reviews can help me.

It’s not about me; it’s not about the author. The idea behind customer reviews is for readers to either encourage or warn other readers about why they may or may not like a book.

The best reviews are those that are helpful to other readers—thus Amazon’s question at the bottom of each customer review, “Was this review helpful to you?”

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When someone answers yes or no, those responses are counted and displayed at the top of the review.

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Granted, not all review-writers use the opportunity to help others. Some simply praise the book without much explanation. Others might simply spew hatred because they’ve been given the platform to do so. Some people misunderstand the star-rating as a measure of how they personally felt about a particular aspect of the book, rather than as a measure of the author’s writing and story-telling skills.

 

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What does all this mean to you? What does it mean to me? It means we need to try and catch ourselves when we are only considering our own perspective. Like so many other aspects of life, it means not asking ourselves, “How can I use this to my benefit?” but rather, “How can I use this to benefit others?

With that in mind, I’ll have to revisit my reviews of other authors’ books, and make sure I’m following my own advice. I’m not a prolific review writer, and maybe you aren’t either. But when we do review, the best way we can help out an author is by helping out his or her potential readers.

Bionic Eyesight: From Superhuman to Human

There was a time when the name Steve Austin was known not as a wrestler, but as The Six Million Dollar Man. This TV series, based on the novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin, ran from 1974-1978.

Pictured to the right is my childhood Six Million Dollar Man action figure. Not bad for approaching forty. One of the character’s features was his bionic eyesight, providing him with telescopic vision. Back then, such implants were still in the realm of science-fiction, but now they are becoming a reality. We’re getting closer to healing blindness.

 

In this article on restoring vision, the fictional Steve Austin is even mentioned as one of the inspirations for developing the technology. What was once considered superhuman may one day become a simple medical procedure. Science inspires science-fiction, which in turn inspires science.

As we age, our eyesight can deteriorate at a frightening pace. I often carry two or three headgear gadgets with me at all times: eyeglasses, sunglasses, or reading glasses, depending on whether or not I’m wearing contact lenses. Even if I never benefit from advancing technologies such as telescopic contact lenses, reading about them inspires me with hope.

Do any advancing technologies inspire you with hope? Feel free to comment below.



Peer Through Time

Advancing technology and its limitless possibilities

Years ago, if someone had told you that you would soon be able to hold all of the following devices in the palm of your hand, would you have believed it? A telephone. A camera. A photo album. A library of photo albums. An entire volume of encyclopedias. A typewriter. A book. Your library of books. Your calendar. An artificially intelligent assistant who listens to your questions and offers answers. She may not have a conscious awareness of herself, and some of her answers may be funny and weird, but she is learning and adjusting.

Remember, we’re still in the palm of your hand. An alarm clock. A map. All maps, of anywhere on the planet, and even some places beyond. A video camera. Several of your home movies. Your local newspaper and everyone else’s, too. A television. Your address book. A notepad, with pens and highlighters in every color. Your mailbox. Your recipes. Your bank account. A door to the grocery store, the clothing store, almost any store. The Yellow Pages—again, your own local version and everyone else’s. A game. Your own library of games.

Access to all of your friends’ and families’ thoughts and ideas, should they choose to share them, no matter how far away they are. A translator to translate from any language into any other. Access to a world-class education beyond the wildest dreams of those wonderful pioneers who educated you. A compass. A people-tracker that lets you know how close others are to you. Medical diagnoses of a staggering variety. The list goes on and on, and will continue to grow.

Now think of something “impossible” today. It’s likely to soon be possible. The only limit is your imagination, which may very well have no limit at all.

The above was inspired by the book “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think” by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler.

You can read my review of this book here.