Pepper the Robot talks to UK parliament

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The title does not refer to the ‘Maybot’, the well-used nickname for the UK’s present prime minister, but to Pepper, a robot who will be the first non-human to testify in front of the British parliament about the fourth industrial revolution.

Pepper, who has been created by Softbank Robotics, will be explaining topics such as AI and robotics to The Commons Education Select Committee. Robert Halfon, Chair of the Committee told the Times Educational Supplement: “If we’ve got the march of the robots, we perhaps need the march of the robots to our select committee to give evidence.” And he added, “The fourth industrial revolution is possibly the most important challenge facing our nation over the next 10, 20, to 30 years.”

The Education Select Committee wants to understand exactly what the impact of this fourth industrial revolution is likely to be, both in terms of the positives and negatives. For example, as we know, when robots and artificial intelligences are discussed, the talk usually comes around to how this new technology will negatively impact on people’s jobs. As has been pointed out by many AI critics, low-skilled workers are most likely to be hit by the introduction of robotics in the workplace, particularly on factory production lines with repetitive processes. Although, as I have discussed in a previous blog post, there are strong arguments in favour of AI freeing up those workers to do more meaningful tasks.

The Committee hopes that by allowing Pepper to have the floor and talk to members, they will gain some insights into the future. Halfon responded to those who think this ‘performance’ is a bit of a gimmick by saying, “This is not about someone bringing an electronic toy robot and doing a demonstration; it’s about showing the potential of robotics and artificial intelligence and the impact it has on skills.”

Pepper is equipped with four microphones, two HD cameras, and a touchscreen on its chest for displaying information when needed and has been speaking at conferences around the world, so it has some experience in speaking to CEOs and industry leaders.



‘Five Eyes’ tests AI in battlefield scenario

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The militaristic use of AI is somewhat controversial, so this story in Artificial Intelligence News sparked my interest. According to the story, the British military has been trialling the use of AI to “scan for hidden attackers in a mock battlefield environment.” The testing ground is actually in Montreal, Canada rather than the UK, as Canada and the UK, along with the US, Australia and New Zealand are members of what is called ‘Five Eyes’, which is a security partnership.

The AI tool is called SAPIENT (Sensors for Asset Protection using Integrated Electronic Network Technology)

and it has been developed with the aim of using sensors to detect battlefield hazards while freeing up human soldiers for other operational activities. To some it may sound like something you might find while playing “Call of Duty,” except this too will not be deployed in a virtual reality.

 Keeping pace with Russia

Not everyone welcomes the introduction of AI to warfare, but those that do support it point to Russia and China’s heavy investment in military AI and say we must keep pace with them. Russia’s bellicose president Vladimir Putin has already said, “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

Google’s Project Maven

Perhaps that is a chilling enough statement to send most nations scurrying off to work on AI and why the ‘Five Eyes’ are continuing to test news tools extensively. Yet others are wary. For example, earlier in 2018 you may remember the furore that erupted at Google’s offices over its Project Maven contract with the Pentagon to develop AI technology for drones for the Pentagon. Google was forced to drop the contract following an internal backlash and staff resignations.  Some 4,000 staff members demanded that Google would never again “build warfare technology.” Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in a blog post the company will not develop technologies or weapons that cause harm, or anything which can be used for surveillance violating “internationally accepted norms” or “widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.”

SAPIENT development

But others are undeterred by such considerations, and it is a extremely interesting area of debate, especially for ‘civilian’ companies like Google. When companies typically associated with the military work on technology, you can expect a different response from their employees, because this is simply what they do. That is the case with SAPIENT, which was developed by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and industry partners, and co-funded initially by Innovate UK. Since 2016, the programme has been funded solely by DSTL, which is part of the Ministry of Defence.


The UK’s Defence Minister Stuart Andrew said of SAPIENT:

“This British system can act as autonomous eyes in the urban battlefield. This technology can scan streets for enemy movements so troops can be ready for combat with quicker, more reliable information on attackers hiding around the corner.

Investing millions in advanced technology like this will give us the edge in future battles.”

Sapience, by the way, means “the ability to act with judgement.” The question is, can an AI tool that monitors people approaching a checkpoint, or changes in people’s behaviour, rally replace human intelligence? There are many stories about human errors and innocent people have been mistakenly shot. Will AI deliver better responses? Sadly, we will only know after it has been deployed.



How to use AI in a small business

If you are a small business owner, you may wonder if it is possible to implement AI in your business; you may even feel very challenged by the idea. There is a sense amongst small business owners that AI is only for the big companies, but this is a mistake; there are ways to use it regardless of the size of your company. Furthermore, at some point your competitors will catch on to the idea of AI and then you’ll be left behind, so don’t follow the sheep and keep thinking “I’m too small for AI.”

  1. Use AI to analyse data

Big business obviously has lots of data to analyse and AI is very useful for this, but it can be applied to more modest amounts of data as well. Plus, it is far less expensive than hiring a firm to do the calculations and provide the insights. From determining what keeps customers coming back to your business to helping you discover new market niches, AI is a versatile statistical tool.

  1. Use AI to hire staff

Small companies don’t usually have an HR department, but AI can help you here. For example, AI can determine which of your past hiring practices were the most effective. Other AI applications can discover solid leads in surprising places, and inform recruiters about the details of a candidate’s work history and his or her fit for a particular role.

  1. Get more organised with AI

AI can help with bookkeeping and other housekeeping activities that staff often find monotonous and dull. When AI is used in this way, staff see it as less of a threat to their jobs.

  1. Improve customer service

It has become essential for companies to develop new ways to quickly address their customers’ concerns. This is one of the reasons why Gartner predicts that a quarter of customer service operations will “integrate virtual customer assistant (VCA) or chatbot technology across engagement channels by 2020, up from less than two percent in 2017.”

  1. AI can assist with marketing

An survey found that 93 percent of market researchers think AI presents an opportunity for their industry. It eliminates the need for employees to do mechanical tasks; from data preparation to advanced data analysis, which is the most common use of AI.

According to an April 2018 McKinsey report  AI is “likely to have the most substantial impact in marketing and sales.” Therefore, small businesses should start integrating AI now to reach as many consumers as possible in the future.


Will AI make us all multi-lingual?

It used to be Babel, but then Google Translate appeared and everyone started using it, regardless of the fact that what this tool often gave you was text that nobody could quite understand. And now it appears that tech companies are pouring money into developing Instant Translators. But why are they doing this?

AI language assistants are keen to help us all communicate in any language it seems and it does have an attraction for many people from diverse backgrounds. The race is on for translation in real time and Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft are all working on it and it is rumoured that Alexa will soon be able to provide real time translations and compete with Google Assistant. China also has a budding translator in Xiaomi’s Xiao AI.

All this is only possible because rapid advances in software can achieve speech recognition, speech synthesis, neural networks, and machine translation; all f which are necessary for real-time translation.

It makes sense that instant translators are only beginning to mature now, because of the technological advances. But what’s still not clear: why did companies start pouring money into them in the first place, and who will benefit from them?

The answer lies in the way the world is changing. Worldwide, there are now 250 million migrants — people who reside outside of their birth country — according to a recent Pew Research Study.  Plus, more than 60 million Americans speak a language other than English at home. By the middle of this century, all of these migrants stand to benefit from instant translation technology.  This applies to other countries in Europe and to Canada.

Refugees will benefit even more. Some 1.2 million people will be forcibly displaced from their homes in 2018 alone, according to the UN Refugee Agency and an inexpensive instant translation tool could help meet these people’s basic needs.

Ultimately, though, instant translators will help everyone, no matter their linguistic aptitude, and as we travel, language barriers won’t hold us back. So, perhaps there is much to be gained by the investment in AI instant translators.