The robots are coming

When I mention robots in my talks, I often detect a snigger or two from the audience. It seems that many people initially think they’re still something out of sci-fi, or just expensive plastic toys you find on the shelves of Toys-R-US or Hamleys.

But when I gently remind the audience of car production lines — where, to be honest, we’d probably be surprised NOT to see robots — their views usually begin to change. And I remind them too of TV news footage of robots assisting with investigating suspicious packages: I have very clear images in my own mind of robots investigating suspect vehicles in Northern Ireland during the height of the problems there.

And then I show them pictures of some of the battlefield casualty retrieval robots being developed to assist in war situations. Of robots assisting in hospitals — either with basic items such as helping carry trayloads of food around the wards, or more closely aligned to medical work enabling a specialist consultant to analyse or even work on a patient in a remote location. Likewise, the same technology that can enable a battlefield robot to retrieve a casualty from a battlefield can enable a carer to turn a heavy patient.

The intercept of technology and public policy is not just about the use of computers for operational and administrative purposes. It is not even just about the delivery of internet web sites such as

It is about the use of technology in all its manifestations for the public good.

And pervasive technologies, technologies in the devices and buildings that surround us, are an integral part of where we are heading. And we need to be ensuring now that we understand the benefits — and implications — this age will bring. Humorous books such as Wilson’s How to Survive a Robot Uprising do also help provide some passing insight into the issues we need to consider from a technology policy perspective: including the design of technologies that do not unnecessarily infringe or debilitate the social norms that we take for granted — or want to improve.

I remain a firm believer in the power of technology as a beneficial agent of age. But realisation of that belief requires a better dialogue between technologists, scientists, the media, policy-makers and society — otherwise, by a process of natural attrition, the law of unintended consequences takes hold and instead of benefits we discover the negative aspects of technology instead.

At heart, a robot is a wonderful mix of scientific and artistic (including design) endeavours. In the years to come, they will begin to pervade our homes and workplaces in ways we can only begin to imagine — in the same way that they have already transformed industries such as car manufacturing.

And I suppose that’s part of the allure for some right now — in many ways robotics reminds me of the state of computing back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Back then if someone had said there would be a PC on every desk and in every home they’d have been laughed at. So be careful you don’t make the same mistake when someone says the same of robots now.

All of which is a long pre-amble to say how pleased I am to see the announcement that we’re working on the concept of a “Microsoft Robotics Studio”, which aims to bring common technological standards to what is currently a fragmented industry. We need to get the coming age of pervasive computing right, to learn from what has gone well (and badly) from the current range of technologies. Of course, our support for robotics is nothing that new — we previously helped develop our (free) programming tools for Lego Mindstorms, which is where many children discover for the first time the wonderful blend of design, construction, experimentation, programming etc that is the, uh, pun-intended, current state of play.

The issue to me here is how we ensure that technologies ranging from robotics to assisted healthcare, from intelligent buildings to smart traffic management systems are designed to interoperate with each other and to respect us, as citizens/consumers, as an integral part of the system. We have the potential now, with the work on Web services, XML and so on to build a pervasive IT world that is designed to interoperate, designed to be bigger than the sum of its parts. And we have in the work of Kim Cameron and others some of the guiding principles of construction that we should adhere to in building this next new world — the important “ingredient X” that we have been traditionally lacking as an industry.

It remains to be seen whether the industry, the media, society, and our policy-makers can find some more effective crucible in which we can incubate a constructive approach to technology, that enables it to take flight and really empower us in the ways of which I know it is capable. A forum where we can debate and define the type of society we want to see, the type of society we want to be — and how technology will enable us to make that society happen.

I’d be interested in your suggestions of how we might develop just such a crucible.

This blog post originally appeared when I hosted NTOUK on SimpleBlog. It’s one of several I’m retrieving and posting here to bring together my posts in one place. The content and date shown for this post replicates the original. Many links are, inevitably, broken: where I can, I’ll substitute ones that work, particularly where the Internet Archive Wayback Machine has captured the content originally linked to.

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