What does Amazon robots' reaction to butter on floor say about tech revolution?

Robots lack common sense and are prone to foul ups because of their creators' errors

James Moore
Chief Business Commentator
Friday 08 June 2018 13:05 BST
Robots: Are they scary terminators or loveable losers?
Robots: Are they scary terminators or loveable losers? (Getty Images)

The robots are coming! The robots are coming!

That’s a refrain we hear a lot these days, with tech companies like Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook, putting their best brains to work on artificial intelligence and ways to get it moving around.

There’s dark talk about the swathe of job losses this is expected to perpetuate. The spectre of the Terminator is often raised, and a new sequel featuring original robot buster Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor is in the works. It’ll find an audience.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

But maybe don’t be. At least not for a bit.

Robots are already with us. They’ve been in the car industry for years. They’re doing increasing numbers of mundane tasks. But they’re not always all that good at them. Their propensity for cock ups can make them seem more like the lovable losers they’re sometimes portrayed as in children’s TV shows than the Terminator franchise’s scary liquid metal killing machines.

Take Amazon. Spilled butter was enough to confuse some of its machines. It uses more than 100,000 to pick and carry products around its enormous warehouses, but the bloke in charge of them, Tye Brady, said something important at a recent event at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology: they lack common sense.

When popcorn butter got squished on the floor, the robots saw it, thought they’d better check it out, and all ended up driving through and slipping up. All of a sudden there was butter everywhere. Pixar’s Wall-E would have been appalled.

Self driving cars? They’re still crashing. Then there was that security bot that drowned itself in a pool at a US shopping mall.

It is true that Amazon has an interest in making bots seem cuddly rather than scary. So do lots of other tech businesses, and some of the more mundane businesses that hope to benefit from them.

However, Mr Brady’s point that they’re currently complementary to human staff is at least worthy of consideration.

You can find other evidence of it in retail. Self checkouts, for example, have yet to get rid of checkout operators at supermarkets. Why? It’s because they’re rubbish. They can speed things up. But I’d challenge anyone to get through a decent sized basket without having to call for help (I can’t remember ever having done that).

The Bank of England’s governor Mark Carney has nonetheless said robots could pose problems similar to those seen during the industrial revolution, and might fuel the rise of Marxism. He might have a point.

But modern luddites are, as things stand, as likely to attack bots out of frustration as they are out of revolutionary fervour.

This is not to undermine the debate we need to have about this tech, and the way it is used, the impact it might have, and especially the ethics.

It bears repeating that a South Korean university was recently blacklisted by peer institutions over its work on self propelled weapons that could theoretically operate without human oversight.

Perhaps the one point to take from the lighter side of their advance is that robots are still ultimately designed and built by humans, and humans, even the cleverest of them, are flawed and make errors.

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