Robots and Humans working together has been a prevalent topic for a while.  For some, this is seen as a threat, for others this offers a world of opportunities. On a recent visit to the smart city of Singapore, I was able to witness the world of automation and robots.

Robotic Chef

My first morning at breakfast, I encountered a robotic chef.  Instead of my omelette being made by a human, with a smile and conversation, it was made by a robotic arm.  The result – was a very tasty omelette.  Occasionally a member of staff, wandered by to top up the machine with ingredients, but apart from that human interaction was nil. 

The benefit here was efficiency and a made to order omelette.  The downside was I couldn’t customise the omelette beyond the options provided, nor could I engage in conversation and ask questions. I like to ask questions – I am permanently curious.

Robotic Law Enforcement

Walking along the streets, I became aware of a “robotic police person”. This was a robot stationed at an intersection scanning the traffic.  It also had the ability to move if required.  Essentially, it was CCTV monitoring.  Although a bit eerie, there was a strong sense of safety – a definite benefit. However, I did find myself wondering about the amount of data being collected and how it was being used.

Served by a robot

A restaurant visit was interesting.  I was shown to a table by a human, then the world of technology took over.  Using my smart phone, I scanned the QR code on the table and placed my order.  A little while later, a robot server delivered drinks to the table.  It was a surprise, but it worked.  Meals also arrived in the same way. The process was efficient.  However, as in the case with the robotic chef, conversation was missing and the ability to customise orders.

Sitting relatively close to the kitchen, I was able to see the robots loaded with orders and despatched from the kitchen.  I was a bit mesmerised.  There was still a place for humans, but for how long I wonder.

Autonomous cleaners

Many of the shopping centres that I visited were spotlessly clean.  Part of this I believe was due to the deployment of robotic cleaners.  Again they worked well and were fully integrated into life.  Apart from myself as a tourist stopping to observe and take photos.  residents of the city have embraced this additional part of human and robot interaction.

One could ask, what has happened to the jobs of cleaners?  This is one of the concerns of a world of robots and machinery.  I did see cleaners, but a lot less than one would usually see. I wondered about job creation and disappearance. What jobs had been created and for what and how had people reskilled? In fact, I wondered about this, for every robotic and autonomous interaction that I encountered.

Security Challenges

Leaving Singapore City, at the airport I was again met with a robot.  It took particular interest in me, circling me a few times to have a good look!  I did however wonder what was so interesting about me investigate. I got the feeling that skin tone came into the “robotic curiosity”.  I have run into this issue with “systems” on a few occasions. This is something we must guard against when designing systems, to ensure they are not biased in any way. 

In the end I just wanted to run away from the robot.  However, on the upside, deploying robots to assist with security, in my opinion is a good thing.  The more eyes, ears, cameras, sensors – the better!

Is a future with Robots inevitable?

It appears to me that robots can help with mundane tasks, freeing people up to be creative and innovative.  Additionally, robots can work in hazardous environments, enabling work for humans to be safer. 

The big areas that I am reflecting on, are a lack of human interaction and the affect this can have on mental wellbeing.  Also, jobs being lost.  I am not fully convinced that an equal number of jobs is being created.

I also wonder about the amount of raw materials and energy being  used in this technological age.  I frequently ponder on what issues will arise.  I did say I was permanently curious!

As an educator, I also think of what is being taught in schools.  I think the more computational thinking, physical computing, collaborative and debating activities – the better!  All contribute to a better informed digital society. In my opinion we are living in an exciting time of change.

My final thought is – did you know – Singapore ranks highly in the world happiness report  This is due to a few factors.  Maybe, embracing robots and automation is just a part of the happy glow. What do you think? 

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