Exploring the Brave New World of AI, Robotics & Autonomous Cars

“Thinking” computers have a technology phenomenon this year, at least in the trade press.  What does this all mean for real people and when? Is it just a fad? After all, we got excited about using drones to deliver sofas by air a couple of years back and the best they seem to have done is become a plaything.

The reality is that automation has been creeping into business for two or three decades, usually in the form of smart, but fixed, assembly stations. These systems can’t think for themselves, though, and that is where this next wave of robotics differs. These realities will re-shape the products that electronics OEMs make and sell, but also will change the supply chain used in the manufacturing process itself.  

Although some technologies haven’t hit real-world use as quickly as we might have hoped, a peek into the future shows some notable potential for a whole new world of capabilities based on the gee whiz technologies of today. Really powerful smarts have gotten much cheaper in the last few years, both in hardware and software, so that the economics are making many new use cases possible. Let’s look at a few.

The most profound change impacting carbon-based lifeforms is going to be in travel. Big-city folk, and there are many of us, are tired of slow commutes and the stress of driving. We are going to welcome self-driving cars with open hands. Now, while the early adopter stage we are in means that today’s self-driving cars are just four-door sedans with a computer for driver, the near future of the technology is going to be much more.

Image courtesy: Waymo

Image courtesy: Waymo

Pressure to be “green” means the ideal commuter car will be a single-seat electric unit. Tiny in comparison to today’s vehicles, these will still be very safe and very comfortable but they will yield around 150 miles per charge, which is plenty for most daily driving. The impact on traffic will (eventually) be dramatic. four-lane freeways can have six lanes or more, while the distance between vehicles and the amount of road taken by them will be more than halved.

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Effectively freeways become twice as big or more. Another benefit of the self-driving car is that traffic flows will optimize. First, the gawkers’ blocks will go away and much of the uneven flow in traffic will disappear. Another benefit is that macroscopic traffic management such as rerouting around heavy traffic or accidents can be handled by cloud-based apps. The flip side of all of this is that speeding and erratic driving will be a thing of the past.

Apply the same idea to truck deliveries and optimizing delivery schedules and tracking delivery times are a cinch. Without drivers, deliveries can easily be made at night instead of during commute hours, balancing road loading even more. That’s touched on a nerve, though. No delivery drivers? That’s a major demographic that just got made redundant. This is a key issue as we talk to change here. People are affected in big ways.

Taxi drivers bite the dust when Uber has self-driving vehicles to dial-up on demand. Fewer auto-workers are needed to make smaller cars, though there’ll be a boom as the transition from gas-guzzlers takes place. It rolls through to traffic police. We won’t have as many when artificial intelligence (AI) follows the law all the time.

There are other implications in the law enforcement area. Police will always know who was driving and where. No more hit and run and as for bank robbery…! Parking meters will be virtualized to the cloud and automated, with the plus being that you’ll be automatically guided to the best parking space, which the AI will have reserved for you.

However, all of this isn’t restricted to cars. Airplanes will fly automatically, making pilots redundant.  Trains won’t need engineers and ship’s crews will shrink. All in all, for those not affected by job loss, though, this will be a faster and less stressful world to travel in.

But why commute in a world of virtual reality and connect-everything? Well, a dirty little secret. Commuting should have died years ago, when online services reached the home. The reason this hasn’t happened is that humans are social animals. They go to work to be close to their peers!

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This “human” factor may derail some of these Brave New World ideas, perhaps less so in travel, admittedly, but the development of sensor-based medicine is threatening to completely automate disease diagnosis. It’s very real, with some working models already, but that threatens the whole first stage of medical delivery…the general practitioner/family doctor.  The flip-side is that diagnosis will be fast, cheap and above all accurate, and it may be that home self-diagnosis makes mums sleep better at night. Specialist doctors will have more time to treat patients, which is another big plus.

Meanwhile, AI in the cloud will be monitoring everything. That’s what the IoT is all about. Sensors checking the optimal ripeness of fruit in transit, the moisture levels of growing plants, how much toothpaste you have left.

The effects will be subtle, and mostly positive, but you have to feel that “Big Brother” is watching you and, yes, that might be true! The UK has millions of traffic cameras recording license plates as cars pass. An idea to enforce speed limits using computer to figure time between cameras has been shelved, for the moment. Balancing surveillance and its security benefits against a total loss of privacy is a raging debate today.

We haven’t really touched the issue of AI yet. The hot topic of this week was that AI might replace programmers in writing code. Another debate smolders over the idea that AI on the battlefield will be choosing what to blast. Put all this together and people like Stephen Hawking are invoking Asimov’s three laws of robotics…you know, the rules that robots do no harm to fragile humans.

This brings up the fundamental issue of all of this. If everything ends up in the hands of “intelligent” robots, why do we need humans at all? Will the Brave New World exist just for the super-rich who are waited on by robots? What happens to the rest of us? Do we rebel before it is too late?

We have to think these issues through. The timeframe for this to happen has shortened dramatically with the rapid advance of computer power. Putting three million truckers on the streets over a decade will be traumatic. Repeat that in 10 or 20 major employment areas and social strain will be high. The bottom line is the Brave New World has to be a positive experience for the vast majority and not just for a privileged few.

One winner in all of this rush to automation is the silicon business, with chips and sensors flying off the shelves in huge quantities. Delivering them all will justify a lot of robot trucks! The Brave New World is a mixture of sweet and sour apples.

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