I feel privileged to have lived in unique times. As someone born in 1956 I have witnessed the introduction of computers. At school I used logarithmic tables, during my first year at university I used a slide rule, and by my second year hand-held calculators had just become affordable.
I first learnt to code in Fortran IV and submitted a stack of punch cards for batch programming each evening. The next morning, after my program had crashed, I would receive a ‘core dump’ to help me diagnose program errors. Over time the core dump would get smaller (providing my fellow students had not shuffled my punch cards whilst I wasn't looking) and eventually my program would work.
First time end users and the millennium bug
I witnessed the first dumb terminals with a VDU (visual display unit) and the first PCs. I pioneered the introduction of computers onto the shop floor at Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering. For 18 months I ran BT’s ‘Information Center’, putting PCs into the business and introducing ‘users’ to ‘End User Computing’. I observed the transition from memos to internal mainframe-based email and subsequently to email as we know it today.
I wrestled with issues such as data security and disaster recovery and struggling to convince the Board that we needed to spend money on such precautions. I was a part of the fear, and in some cases panic, leading up to the millennium and the huge anti-climax that followed.
The world got smarter
Day-by-day the world has got ‘smarter’ and it continues to do so at an ever-increasing pace. New innovations are constantly hitting the streets. Today smart traffic lights monitor and improve traffic flow and reduce pollution, crimes can be predicted before they happen and people’s health can be monitored remotely to name but a few.
Robots in the home become a reality
My husband and I have just purchased our first robot – an auto-mower. My husband didn’t believe the technology was there yet, but after four months he is a convert. Our lawn has not had human intervention during this time and the quality has notably improved. ‘Blade Runner’, as we call him, has changed our lives, we are no longer slaves to our garden; his random movements are mesmerising to watch, especially whilst sipping a G&T.
The best is yet to come
The pace of change has been rapid and the need for people to adapt to new ways of working has never been so dramatic. We are now poised at the dawn of what I believe to be a second and more spectacular technical revolution. With the advent of technologies such as block chain and the advancement in robotics, and when the infrastructure and battery technology has developed sufficiently to truly exploit the Internet of Things, our lives are set to change beyond our wildest dreams.
Robotics at Cranfield UniversityI recently attended a conference on robotics at Cranfield University. The morning focused on the technology whilst the afternoon focused on the human element and its implications for society. Cranfield is currently researching human and robot collaboration; projects include:
- The capture of human skill with a focus on tacit knowledge and the idiosyncratic techniques and short cuts that only an experienced operator would know
- Cooperative and anticipatory machine intelligence where robots understand how humans move and anticipate their next movement. As well as pre-programed data the robot receives movement/proximity data via both its own sensors and also those worn by its human colleague
- Increasing human/machine trust and acceptance by ‘humanising’ robots. Cranfield is currently teaching robots human gestures such as a thumbs up, a high five and to chink a mug.
Robots will be cooking dinner sooner than you think
Kitchen robots are expected by 2019, they will not only be able to cook and wash-up, but also read facial expressions and body language to sense your mood. They will interact with your smart fridge, so know what ingredients are available for dinner.
The implications of automation in the wider world
On Monday 25 September 2017 an autonomous taxi made its maiden flight in Dubai. The ‘Volocopter' as it is called, is set to become the cornerstone of a flying taxi service – an ‘Uber’ of the skies. Dubai has also set an audacious target of getting all government information and services running on block chain by 2020.
How far should we take robotics ethically?
Industrial, domestic and professional robots are poised to impact both our working and personal lives. Business and society will be faced with new moral and ethical dilemmas. Cyber security will need to take on a new level of importance as the number of points of attack increase and the consequences of such an attack become potentially catastrophic.
Just because something is technically possible it does not mean that it should be done. Should, for example, we restrict the use of industrial robots to roles that humans either can’t perform or that are potentially damaging to human health and/or safety? If we don’t, and as suggested at the Cranfield conference, the central question of 2025 may become:
‘What are people for in a world that does not need their labour, and where only the minority are needed to guide the bot-based economy?’
Humans must retain control
Mine may be a cynical view of the future but one I believe that we should not leave to chance. Business and governments need to ensure that we don’t de-humanise people, that human capability and machine intelligence are brought together in the spirit of co-creation. They need to consider the impact new technical capabilities will have on individuals and society as a whole. Business and academia need to consider the next generation in the workplace, Gen Z, whom we are currently training for jobs that won’t exist.
Ultimately businesses, government and academia need to focus on the symbiotic relationship between human beings and technology as the two merge closer together.
Dr Robina Chatham is the Programme Director for Cranfield IT and Digital Leadership Programme.
This modular course, spread over three months, provides senior IT and digital personnel the skills and confidence needed to ensure they are effective in their roles. It helps them define and drive their digital agenda and shape future business direction. A personal development element gives participants impact and influence at board level.
Living within an ever-increasing robotised and automated world, IT and digital are at the heart of all that we do, at home and in business. Let us help you lead within this digital age.