‘The big education for me is that civilisation is fragile and can be destroyed in a heartbeat' - Jeremy Brade, former peacekeeper in Sarajevo.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND: A robotic future? by Wiggia

Those of us of a certain age can recall the early films at our weekly outings to Saturday morning pictures like Flash Gordon and aliens from outer space that depicted those fledgling robots and telekinetic beings with devices that could transport one about the planets, all jaw-dropping for us as children and a portent for things to come.

Ever since those days we have been constantly told that within 5/10/20 years robots would be doing mundane tasks around the house and a life of decadence awaited us as we hailed our robot to bring us more drinks.

As with most predictions it hasn’t happened, certainly not in the way foretold. Robotics are well established in industry, but outside of assembly lines and laboratories they are still a rare commodity.

Is that about to change? In many ways it has already started; the personal robot may still be a long way off but methods to ease the drudgery of life are becoming ever more self evident.

Little by little ever more items are chipped and programmed to automatically do the job for us, from the programming on the now humble washing machine to the touch screen in cars. They are signs of the way things are going; whether much of it is desirable or necessary is another matter.

The automobile has seen a lot of electronic input in recent years. The coming of the EV will see almost total digitalisation of controls and functions, eventually culminating in driverless cars. The problems in achieving the latter are enormous and solutions nowhere near ready, but they are coming down the line in one form.

Yet what of those functions now included in ever growing numbers in such things as automobiles? So much today that is offered electronically is geared towards the young but do even they use all of it? The functions on a modern car's touch screen (apart from being a very unsafe way of communicating in a moving car, another subject) seem to be there because of a race among manufacturers to provide the biggest range of items simply because they can. A friend's recently purchased Mercedes bore that fact out and even he says that he is almost frightened to touch much of it as he has no idea what is there; the handbook is a miniature Encyclopedia Britannica; it is absurd how much is electronically controlled as so little is ever used.

He’s impressed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I know only too well in my comparatively simple car that I only use in the range of ten per cent of that in front of me outside of the mandatory speedometer, fuel gauge etc. The rest is not only redundant, I can only guess what lurks beneath the touch screen as I have no known use for it all.

The young today are glued to their mobiles. A mobile phone has become for them a replacement for so much that it is doubtful they have the knowledge to communicate without one, and I read (a sad indictment of our times) that the NHS, 'she who must be revered', is setting up clinics for children who are addicted to the things and show violent tendencies if any one tries to cut their user time down - indeed a child who plays video games for 14 hours a day threatened his mother when she tried to take the phone/tablet away, though one has to ask how does a school kid get to spend that time playing games that long and get away with it.

VW have just announced they are trialling robotic EV chargers, thereby circumventing the need for chargers to be installed at great cost everywhere. They even talk of them being able to connect with the car while the owner is away - sounds good, but we have seen what happens to electric scooters and the like when not supervised; yobs attacking electric chargers could give a whole new meaning to shock tactics!

What the video shows is that the good idea, on paper, has some downsides: you have to park the things somewhere and what if a car hits one or they ignore pedestrians in the street etc.; and do we really want these mobile bins? Remember there are two of them to set out and collect, so rather large objects, hurtling about everywhere on the pavements and crossing roads... nah, once again I don’t think this has been thought through; in an enclosed garage maybe, on the streets, not so much.

The item that prompted this short piece was in the Times and told the story of how LG the South Korean electronics giant want to take white goods a stage further in the innovation stakes.

They are introducing a refrigerator that that opens by voice command. The reasoning is a bit spurious, to put it mildly: “No longer will shoppers have to struggle to open the fridge door with arms full of groceries.” Two things there: I have never known anyone with 'arms full of groceries' even try to open a fridge door; and if the door opened on voice command you would still be standing there with arms full of shopping. There is no way you could put the bloody shopping in the fridge unless you do the sensible thing and put the shopping down. 

LG claim the feature will make time spent in the kitchen “more productive and convenient”; hmmm.

Naturally it has a Coronavirus slant and benefit as you would touch surfaces less! The phrase 'grasping at straws' comes to mind.

The Japanese just can’t leave anything as it was. With this in the house I imagine many people would never leave the bathroom.

You know and I know that will not stop this type of feature/gimmick gaining traction. I suppose one plus would be if the feature failed to work you could vent your spleen at the fridge door rather than the wife.

It goes without saying that the feature can be linked to that ludicrous Amazon ‘voice assistant’ Alexa so as well having the time told you, the weather report, and who's top of the pops, it will also be able to tell you what is in the fridge without opening the door. This, LG say, 'will save significant amounts of energy'; how is not laid out. As in the normal world you only open the fridge to take things out or put things in, any saving is in the minds of the inventors of this technology.

There are several other plusses added, such as an app for the phone that can receive messages from your fridge when you are shopping suggesting recipes using what is still in the fridge - oh, please! And it can tell you if you left the fridge door open; in that case, surely this oh-so-clever feature would be able to close the same door as it can open... oh no, you are too far away to shout at it.

Fear not, more is to come. Remember the days when you had built-in Hoover pipes in every room so you did not have to carry the machine round, just plug in hose and cleaning head? This was a feature that was going to revolutionise home cleaning and it died a death in the time it took to read the advert. That is just a foretaste of the delights lined up for us: the 'internet of things' is coming to a home near you and soon we are told, household objects (and the body of the house?) will take actions on behalf of the owner without prompts.

This will mean the fridge will order more milk while sensors in the wall will call a plumber if they detect a leak. What could possibly go wrong! With cars the highest incidence of failure today is in the electrical systems; transfer that to a house and the potential for trouble is endless.

Not that all is useless overkill. The phone app that means you can turn on/off your heating or cooker on the way home can make sense if you live alone and work irregular hours, but so much else with time becomes more bother than it’s worth, the internet itself has in some ways become self-defeating.

The convenience of shopping, banking etc. from home is nullified by necessary precautions. In the case of internet banking, there are additional measures because those institutions can’t guarantee safety, so they are putting the onus back on the customer to provide extra levels of security. Instead of clicking on with a password to your banking account you now have also answer a question, add the last four numbers in reply to another question and then add a code number you have asked for on your phone using your ‘unique’ ID. Simples! It would be easier to walk into your bank branch - if they still existed .

These extra levels of security apply now to everything you use on the internet. All passwords are to be remembered and not written down - hundreds of them! Even using a password manager is not the full answer as the very good free ones are prone to lose all your details during a Windows update or crash, as I and others have discovered; that’s when those bits of paper with the details written down that you should not have lying about come into their own as the only way back into the same sites. 'One step forward, two back' comes to mind.

We have become obsessed with digital gadgets, the fascination stemming from items like the 'speak your weight' weighing machine of years gone by and extending to the sat nav and all the other aids to modern living. Some have a place, some think they do; others are, well, shall we say misused? There is the case of the fitness fanatic who as so many do went on a run with his heart monitor on his wrist; he stopped to speak to another runner and they exchanged peak heart rate numbers, and just after he gave his he dropped dead of a heart attack. At least he found his limit.

No, we cannot stop the advance of robotics in their various forms. Much will become the new normal as has been said a lot lately and many features/items will end up in cupboards along with the endless kitchen items beloved by Lakeland customers which are for display only or used once and discarded. Some will survive; I won't.

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