Friday, June 10, 2022

Artificial Intelligence and Robots Keep Progressing, Like It or Not

Inflation and the pandemic have been the two largest American 2020s news stories, but not all.  Before they, and the Ukraine war, took over the headlines, another combined area gathered much more attention.  As it will remain critical after these three other situations have passed, let’s check in.

Artificial intelligence has been the toddler of technology, capable of much more than its governance can handle.  In “Clearview AI settles suit and agrees to limit sales of facial recognition database,” by Ryan Mac and Kashmir Hill in the May 9th New York Times, we learned about how this company, which uses “its database of what it said were more than 20 billion facial photos,” will no longer work with “most private individuals and businesses in the country,” but will still “sell that database to federal and state agencies.”  This decision stemmed from a 2020 American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, which Clearview AI ended “to avoid a protracted, costly and distracting legal dispute with the A.C.L.U. and others.”  It can still be used by the likes of police departments, and the technology will remain.

Along similar data-collection lines, we have “Your Bosses Could Have a File on You, and They May Misinterpret It” (Sarah Scoles, The New York Times, May 17th).  Here, the ability to collect and integrate information has surpassed its prudent use, as “some private enterprises may be attracted to scrutinizing employees like an intelligence agency might keep tabs on analysts and spies,” since “software can watch for suspicious computer behavior or it can dig into an employee’s credit reports, arrest records and marital-status updates,” and it “can check to see if Cheryl is downloading bulk cloud data or run a sentiment analysis on Tom’s emails to see if he’s getting testier over time.”  This sort of thing, with poor or no established handling practices, being subject to unsettled laws, and as in the ACLU example ripe to easily run afoul of others with more power, is going to cause plenty of trouble before it achieves huge gains.

While still often controversial, physical AI applications are marching on.  One was described in “Robotic surgery is safer and improves patient recovery time,” from University College London on May 15th in Science Daily.  This was a formal writeup of an academic study showing that “robot-assisted surgery used to perform bladder cancer removal and reconstruction enables patients to recover far more quickly and spend significantly (20 per cent) less time in hospital.”  Here, “researchers say the findings provide the strongest evidence so far of the patient benefit of robot-assisted surgery.”  Although robots have helped with surgery before, such research results are where such things begin widespread legitimacy and implementation.

“What’s holding back the self-driving car revolution?”  This obvious query was posed by Mike Bebernes in Yahoo Finance on May 19th.  He said “the simplest reason” was that “driving is much more complex and difficult to replicate than automakers anticipated,” especially in dealing with “unexpected situations.”  Others he proposed were auto companies “rolling untested self-driving features onto the road and making lofty claims that prompt drivers to push beyond their vehicle’s capabilities,” and “the task of creating cars that can navigate every imaginable road scenario may simply be impossible.”  The second problem here is of marketing, but the first and third were supposed to be solved with efforts beginning with dedicated testing grounds and billions of dollars of purchased brainpower.  As one cited observer put it, “unless the industry and public agree to accept a flawed self-driving system – one capable of failure – autonomous vehicles on our streets will never become mainstream.  Achieving perfection here can’t, and shouldn’t, be the goal.”  That is the real issue, which boils down to a lack of tolerance, a lack of perspective in underemphasizing the most recent years’ 42,000 American human-driving deaths, and a lack of will.  There is no imaginable way that, given the possible things that could have gone wrong, we could have overcome a similar attitude when, for example, getting to the moon. 

How are sales of automatons doing now?  Just fine, as “US robot orders surge 40% as labor shortages, inflation persist” (Lucas Manfredi, Fox Business, June 1st).  It makes clear sense, as if workers need higher pay they open a door for alternatives, which can improve and cost less over time.  The industries with substantial increases were metals; plastics and rubber; semiconductor, electronics and photonic; food and consumer goods; and “all others.”  Expect more.

A well-established Japanese nursing-home idea has making stateside inroads.  As described in “Therapy with a robot?  How AI could help those struggling with mental health” (Michael L. Diamond, Asbury Park Press, published in Times Herald-Record on May 26th).  Sort of like 1990s Furby toys, called MARCos, “short for the mental health assisting robot companion,” they are “soft and cushy with two nonjudgmental eves and no mouth,” and look “like your favorite stuffed animal from childhood to whom you told your secrets.”  These devices “can respond, listening for key words to dispense advice or alert your contacts in case of an emergency.”  At $499 to $720 and heading lower, they are cost-effective if they achieve customer acceptance – and of course they can continue to improve.

Finally, “Farm Robots Will Solve Many of Our Food Worries” (Amanda Little,, June 2nd).  They “use computer vision to distinguish between crops and weeds and then deploy with sniper-like precision tiny jets of herbicide onto the weeds.”  Currently “expensive, enormous, wildly complex machines currently accessible only to industrial-scale farmers,” with enough demand they will get cheaper and smaller, and “within a few years their impact on the environment and human health could be nothing short of spectacular.”  More progress with the usual massive potential – that’s once more the story with robots and artificial intelligence.

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