Web Summit 2014: Robots, humans and fallible technology
By Michael Hennigan, Finfacts founder and editor
Nov 6, 2014 - 6:23 AM

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The humanoid robot "Atlas" was developed by the American robotics company Boston Dynamics for the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DAPRA) robotics challenge. Boston Dynamics says: "We use sensor-based controls and computation to unlock the capabilities of complex mechanisms." Organizations worldwide, from DARPA - the research unit of the US Defense Department, which developed the Internet - the US Army, Navy and Marine Corps to Sony Corporation turn to Boston Dynamics for advice and for help creating the most advanced robots on Earth.

Google’s acquisition of Boston Dynamics in 2013 marked its eighth robotics purchase in a six month period, showing Google’s “moonshot” robotics vision is more than just a pet project.

Web Summit 2014: Given the chance to give up work to robots, nine out of 10 people “wouldn’t want to be doing what they’re doing today,” Larry Page, the 41-year old co-founder of Google said in an interview with The Financial Times, that was published last weekend. Apart from the remarkable reversal in modern times of an enduring pattern through the ages that the poor had little leisure time compared with the rich, technology is fallible and while Michael Dell saw the arrival of the Internet as a great opportunity to replace the traditional 'brick and mortar' retail model, Steve Jobs opened the first Apple store in 2001 and Apple now has about 425 outlets in 13 countries.

There is an enduring myth that Charles Holland Duell (1850-1920) who was the United States Commissioner of Patents in 1898-1901, said in 1899: "Everything that can be invented has been invented."

Duell in fact quoted President McKinley's annual message to Congress in the 1899 report of the Patents Office: "Our future progress and prosperity depend upon our ability, to equal, if not surpass, other nations in the enlargement and advance of science, industry and commerce. To invention we must turn as one of the most powerful aids to the accomplishment of such a result, " and Duell added, "May not our inventors hopefully look to the Fifty-sixth Congress for aid and effectual encouragement in improving the American patent system?"

There is no question that we who are living today are beneficiaries of stunning advances in technology and Warren Buffett, the well-known US investor said in a CNBC interview in 2011:

I think the luckiest person around is the baby that's born in the United States today. I don't think there's any question about it. I mean, I— it— that person is going, on average, to enjoy a far better life, you know, than John D. Rockefeller had many years ago or that I have now. I mean, just look at— just look at the improvements in the last 15 or 20 years, you know, in terms of what people have.

You mentioned Twitter, you know, for example. I didn't know what the word meant. But there's all kinds of things have come along. I, you know, if I didn't have any money, I would live better than John D. Rockefeller lived. I mean, I can— I can watch the Super Bowl brought to me by, you know, Coca-Cola or something. It's what— the world gets better, and so I think if there's a new normal, it will be a higher normal in terms of the average person of how they lived 20 years from now and 50 years from now."

On Wednesday, Prof John Kay in his Financial Times column wrote [free access] of Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836) who was the richest individual (excluding rulers/kings/dictators) in the world when he died and a list compiled by Forbes magazine, ranks him as the second richest man who ever lived - after Marcus Licinius Crassus, a crony of Julius Caesar.

Prof Kay says Rothschild died of "septicaemia following an abscess, and in spite of buying the best medical attention available in Europe at the time" - today the ailment would be cured by a simple antibiotic.

While the pace of innovation may have slowed down, there can be little doubt about the direction of the trend, even though the social consequences may well be mixed.

In 1930 the renowned British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) published a short essay, 'Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,' [pdf] in his collection 'Essays in Persuasion.'

In the essay, he was optimistic for the economic future despite the upheaval the post-World War I years and the onset of the Great Depression.

Keynes said that by 2030 the standard of living would be dramatically higher; people, liberated from want (and without the desire to consume for the sake of consumption), would work no more than fifteen hours a week, devoting the rest of their time to leisure and culture.

One of the worries Keynes noted was a “new disease”: “technological unemployment…due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.”

His readers might not have heard of the issue he suggested—but they were certain to hear a lot more about it in the years to come.

For most of the 20th century, a rising tide did lift most of the boats but when the typical income of an American household in inflation-adjusted terms in 2013 was below the 1989 level, while those at the top of the economic pyramid get most of the gains,  societal balance is imperilled. See Economist article here.

Globalization's new normal needs permanent underclass - Part 1

Globalization, the underclass and the need for a new model - Part 2

Globalization, technological change and GDP's disconnect - Part 3

While the future for technological innovation looks bright, being dependent on an automated world can be risky as tech is fallible.

The adoption of the mobile or cell phone across the globe has brought convenience everywhere and since the 1980s there has been a trade-off between the standard of the service/ coverage and convenience.

However, while it's good to have 4G/LTE but at ground level in Blackrock in South Dublin, you can still experience a service when available, that is not as reliable as a landline, while you can be either on floor 23A in Kuala Lumpur (Chinese don't like the figure 4 as in Mandarin it sounds the same as 'to die') or at ground level and still experience a dodgy service.

Fibre optic is supposed to be super-fast - but the reality is that it is not consistent.

Free wi-fi is supposed to be a great aspiration to have in airports and parks but it depends - credit where it's due I found it to be good on Dublin Bus on my last visit home.

The tech industry is reluctant to talk about it but the software often doesn't live up to expectations - by software I mean support or the lack of it.

Internet service providers compete on price but calling with a problem can be a nightmare: "Your call is important to us, please hold" usually precedes a blizzard of promotional garbage that the caller with a problem is surely not likely to want to hear.

Free Viber reception is better than a Skype paid subscription and Microsoft paid $8.5bn for Skype but have done little with it.

There is no wonder why Jan Koum, a native of Ukraine, and his business partner, have had phenomenal success with the WhatsApp smartphone service - it's almost free and it's not strange that such services catch-on fast in big unitary markets - the US and China

Last year the US government's online launch of President Obama's healthcare insurance program was a disaster.

Last April Michael Skapinker of the FT wrote about "hideaway companies – the ones that want our business but don’t want to hear from us, except through a call centre. The companies run by executives who commission market research but seldom meet customers or find out what they want."

He cites a 2008 book called 'The Best Service is No Service' by Bill Price and David Jaffe who argued, most of us don’t want a relationship with a company. We just want things to work. If we have to deal with a company directly, we want it to be fast and responsive, but we would rather not have to contact it.

Humans of course are a hassle and last December The Wall Street Journal reported on the high level of returns that US e-retailers have to handle.

The home-shopping network QVC saw returns rise to 19.4% of gross product revenue in 2012 from 18.9% in 2010.

Technology brings many positives but it shouldn't be taboo to raise the negatives.

Finally, while humans will compete more with robots in future, it would be foolish to believe that the concept of privacy will no longer exist.

For some myth-busting and background on Irish tech policy, see here:

Dublin Web Summit 2014: Separating hype and reality

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