Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: robotics

Challenging assumptions in science fiction: 4. You say you want a revolution?

My mid-week posts this month have been a series of meditations upon what I think are outmoded science fictional tropes, be they ever so time-hallowed. There are just some times and settings in which I can’t suspend my disbelief of these extrapolations.

The series was inspired by my thoughts while reading Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey. Let’s get this straight, right off the top: I have some issues with it, but it’s still a wonderful space opera, well crafted and thoroughly worth reading.

So worthwhile, in fact, that the SyFy Channel has turned it and the other books of the highly successful Expanse series into a TV show, also called The Expanse, which is in its third season as I write this. In particular, my comments center upon Ceres Station, its population, and its governance, as portrayed in the book.

I compiled a short list of outstanding reasons NOT to live on Ceres:

  • Human life is apparently cheap, and easily squandered with no penalty.
  • Freedom of speech is nonexistent, and so is freedom of the Fourth Estate.
  • The nutritional base is crap. Seriously? Fungi and fermentation was all they could come up with? Readers of this blog don’t need to guess what I think of this idea.
  • Misogyny is alive and well, but mental health care is not.

Last week I examined the reasons why I think a highly educated and intelligent work force of relatively few people, supervising lots of robots, were a far more realistic and likely extrapolation than a dense population of “expendable” humanity.

I also said I thought that Silicon Valley and the current aerospace industry–not the coal mines and textile mills of yesteryear–were the likelier model for ideas about what you’d find among workers in space.

Granted, the tunnels of Ceres do bear something of a resemblance to the visual effect of this Industrial-Revolution-era coal mine. And the leadership’s disdain for the denizens of this world seems about on par with this era. But I think it’s a misleading extrapolation.

Today I want to take on the questions of human rights and quality of life issues–and explain why I think the government of Ceres, as portrayed in Leviathan Wakes, wouldn’t have lasted nearly as long as it apparently did, even with Star Helix Security activating in its most fascist mode.

It was never clear to me exactly what sort of governing system Earth supposedly had set up on Ceres (don’t look to the wiki for help, either), but it clearly wasn’t a representative democracy. Why not? Apparently, we readers weren’t supposed to ask or care, and the residents certianly weren’t supposed to weigh in on the matter.

Which means it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why there might be unrest. Seriously, people! Nobody needed a gang problem (although the form of government certainly might foster one) to foment unrest on Ceres. Heck sake, the quality of the food alone probably set off riots! (remember: fungi and fermentation only. Yeep).

The food alone ought to set off riots on Ceres. Given the abysmal governance, no wonder the locals got restless!

But given the realities I foresee for the “immediate to intermediate future” of space, whether the governing body is a corporate overlord or a government, the days of the “company store,” debt bondage, and indentured servitude would either be a non-starter or at the very least won’t last very long in a realistic future setting.

Rational human beings will recognize those ideas for the royal shafting they are (as they always have, truth be told), and they will sooner or later find a way to overturn it.

I’m extrapolating that only the bright and well-educated will make it into space–the career-driven, who wouldn’t know what do do with a baby. But they certainly will know what to do with anyone who tries to mess with their freedom of speech or assembly. How long did the Gilded Age last? Two decades? And they didn’t have the Internet. I’m betting on much, much sooner than later.

But if Silicon Valley is a more likely model than a coal mining company town, we’re still not out of the woods–and in that way, the Ceres of Leviathan Wakes is all too realistic: the misogyny in this world is at times breathtaking. I’m writing this on the other side of #MeToo, but this is one battle that is very far from being won, yet.

I haven’t read the whole series, so I don’t know if the misogyny changes later on–but changing science fiction culture itself to stifle misogyny is not for the faint of heart. If you remember Gamergate, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t click on that link!

All I’m saying is, The Expanse series is supposed to begin a couple centuries on from now. Sisters, if we haven’t raised consciousness and kicked some butt by then, God help us!

IMAGES: Many thanks to Amazon, for the Leviathan Wakes cover image; to Fact File for the coal mining photo;  to Vox, for the photo of a riot on Ceres from The Expanse; and to Shout Lo, for the “Equality Loading” imageI deeply appreciate all of you!

To automate, or not to automate? Robo-health-care?

A Glimpse of the Future?

Several recent mid-week posts have addressed aspects of the contemporary and projected issue of automation in the workplace–especially in the area of “machines taking over our jobs.”

A growing number of people think that artificially intelligent robots might take over jobs in white-collar professions, moving far beyond the traditional roles of “the three D’s: dangerous, dirty, and dull,” as robotics expert Ryan Calo calls them. Today I want to talk about health care.

Exactly what do people mean, when they talk about robots “taking over” the jobs of doctors, nurses, or other health care workers? I’m not sure all mean the same things. One thing they almost certainly do not mean is Emergency Medical Holgram Mark I (as portrayed by actor Robert Picardo on TV’s Star Trek: Voyager from 1995-2001).

Don’t expect to meet any Emergency Medical Holograms in your neighborhood hospital anytime soon!

But it’s a question worth asking, all the same. Richard and Daniel Susskind noted in a 2016 Harvard Business Review article that “There are more monthly visits to the WebMD network, a collection of health websites, than to all the doctors in the United States.”

Okay. But is that a salient observation? A quick Internet check to research a question for free takes a whole lot less time, hassle and expense than a trip to see your doctor. I’m not sure this compares apples to apples, guys.

Also, I don’t know any health care professionals who greet with joy (or any expectation of an accurate analysis) the news that their patient looked up his problem on WebMD and has already diagnosed it, “so doctor, you just have to prescribe this kind of pill for me . . .”

Yeah, right. WebMD is a research resource, not a doctor, any more than FindLaw.Com is a lawyer.

Do medical websites such as WebMD actually erode trust between doctors and patients? A 2015 post on LiveClinic Healthcare Blog makes a point that in some cases they might.

However, the Susskinds’ research involved a comprehensive survey of the literature about changes in industry, automation technology, and society, as well as more than 100 interviews with experts in cutting-edge development from a variety of disciplines, so their analysis shouldn’t be discounted or ignored.

When they looked at all the various things doctors and other professionals do, they found that “when professional work is broken down into component parts, many of the tasks involved turn out to be routine and process-based. They do not in fact call for judgment, creativity, or empathy.” In other words, although we don’t have terribly creative or empathic robots currently, there are elements to a professional’s job which don’t require those traits. It’s not hard to make the leap to the idea of the doctor delegating those things to a machine.

It’s true that surgical robots can do many procedures a human surgeon simply could not. Very few of them currently involve autonomous robotics–a doctor still has his/her hands on the controls. But that could change as these machines grow more sophisticated. FW: Thinking has a really informative video on this topic that I hope you’ll find as interesting as I did (relax: no blood) :

There also are other uses for robots that may not exactly eliminate the human doctor’s role so much as extend it. Some retail pharmacy chains, such as CVS and Rite Aid, have been piloting in-store health kiosks. Robert Thompson of Rite Aid says his stores’ interface “pairs licensed healthcare providers with state-of-the-art technology to deliver a truly unique solution to consumers looking for convenient and quality healthcare.” 


Telemedicine has enjoyed a worldwide advent, out of necessity.  “Doctors are examining patients continents away with interactive robots and hi-tech visuals. These robots are fully mobile, with computer screens for heads and real-time video cameras for eyes and ears. Doctors operate them by using a joystick and wireless technology.”

The Doctor will see you now . . . via telemedicine. There’s still a human doctor in this equation, so it’s not exactly a replacement. You might note there’s also a real live human healthcare practitioner at the patient’s bedside as well. Robots have seen particularly robust adoption in Japanese hospitals.

Extending the role of doctors may become an absolute necessity in the near future. We’ve heard about a looming worldwide shortage of doctors for years, and in April 2016 the Association of American Medical Colleges pointed to strong indicators of coming shortages in the U.S., in several broad categories. We may end up coping with this in a variety of ways, including more care given by physicians’ assistants or nurse practitioners–or the use of telemedicine or other automated functions.

There’s a shortage of nurses, too, which is leading some observers to predict automation will move into that job category, too. In 2015 a headline on the Horizon Healthcare Staffing website rather chillingly proclaimed, “Robots will replace nurses sooner rather than later,” which I think would worry me if I worked for Horizon Healthcare Staffing. As with doctors, however, when you look at the details I think replace may be a stretch, at least in the near term. More like “assist” or “augment.”

Introducing Actroid-F, a robotic nurse created by Kokoro Co. Ltd. This robot is designed to provide bedside empathy to patients, but I fear she would seriously weird me out–she’s most definitely from Uncanny Valley territory, in my view! The Japanese, however, reportedly have a more comfortable cultural relationship with robots. I sure hope so.

The HHS article describes the entry of robots into the Japanese health care setting in glowing terms: “Robots already play a key role in Japanese hospitals and healthcare facilities. They are able to look after senior citizens, sing with them, and engage with them in other activities.” Maybe seniors like to sing with them; who knows? After all, the Japanese were the ones who invented karaoke.

However, a motivating factor for the increasing use of robots in Japan is the fear that as the Japanese population ages, there won’t be enough health care workers to take care of them if they don’t create robots to do so. I think if they insist on using exclusively Japanese health care workers they’re right, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

This is Panasonic’s Hospi Type R, essentially a self-driving medicine chest on wheels, “designed to move fragile or bulky medicine and equipment around a hospital.” Wi-fi, cameras, and preprogrammed maps help it navigate; it’s locked by a system that uses an ID security card for access. It was nicknamed “the pink Dalek”–clearly by someone who doesn’t have a clue about the Daleks‘ favorite one-word catchphrase!


In the Asian healthcare scene, “More and more, hospitals all over the world are realizing that robots are efficient messengers who transport materials like food, x-rays, and linens throughout the hospital, saving wear and tear on the feet of over-worked nurses and aides.” Or medicines–pharmacy robots on wheels!–as does the Hospi Type R, shown above.

To my mind a good argument for using robots in a nursing situation would be for tasks “that are physically very demanding and stressful for humans”  (All at once we’re back to Ryan Calo’s “three Ds”).

This is Robear, a prototype robot designed in an effort not to scare the living crap out of fragile elderly patients while it helps to transport them safely. Why a bear? It’s supposed to look “like a friendly polar bear.” Okay. Well, no uncanny valley problems here, anyway!

Not sure how Robear would work in real life? here’s a very short video:

Horizon Healthcare Staffing might not be able to get their hands on this nifty new tech fast enough, but I’ll be interested to see how well the public accepts Robear, the “pink Dalek,” Actroid-F, and their robotic kin.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before it’s News, for the “vision of the future” graphic, and to Bonnie Hutchinson’s “Star Trek Voyager” Pinterest Board for the photo of Robert Picardo as EMH Mark I. 

I appreciated not only the photo of a doctor and patient talking to each other on LiveClinic’s interesting article “Do Computers erode Doctor and Patient Trust?” but also the article itself, which provides an interesting counterpoint to the Susskinds’ observation about WebMD. 

Many thanks to the Re-Tails Blog‘s post about health care robotics in retail pharmacies, for the photo of the telemedicine delivery robot with the hospital patient. 

My gratitude also goes out to WeirdAsiaNews for the photos of the robotic nurse Actroid-F, to The Verge for the photo of the Panasonic Hospi Type R, to NationalFutur, for the still photo of the Robear, and to WXYZ-TV Detroit and YouTube for the video of Robear in action. 

To automate, or not to automate? Is there value to the human element?

A Glimpse of the Future 

Last week I took a first look at some of the jobs that have been increasingly moving over to automation, and a few that might see more automation and fewer humans doing the work in the future.

In some cases this might not be a bad thing. In other cases, the robots may not do as good a job as humans might. A couple of cases-in-point leap to mind: bank tellers and retail store checkers. Which do you prefer?

Love ’em or hate ’em (I know people who feel both ways), these machines seem here to stay.

I’m older than dirt, so I remember before they had such contraptions. I remember having to plan to get money before the bank closed for the day or weekend, and how you always talked with a human being before you could complete any transaction.

I kind of liked it (confession: I still don’t own an ATM card, out of security concerns. Planning ahead: it’s a thing.), but then, I live in the Midwest, where bank tellers and grocery store checkers are apparently friendlier than they are in some other parts of the world. I like to get to know them, in the fond hope that if someone they didn’t know came in and tried to wipe out my bank account, they’d question it. I feel quite certain my bankers at Kansas City’s Country Club Bank would. Thanks, guys!!

I also remember before there was a self-checkout line at the grocery store. I even remember before they had bar codes on the groceries (what a pain that was!), and you had to watch the checker to make sure s/he didn’t make an error or ring something twice that you only bought one of. Of course, now when the machine steals your ATM or credit card information, you have few ways of knowing, so is that a net gain? Depends on for whom, I guess.

There’s reportedly now a trend toward automating fast-food service, unfortunately driven in part by the industry’s resistance to paying its employees a living wage. I can see how an automatic timer to pull the fries out of the hot oil at the penultimate moment might be a good thing, but completely removing all or most of the people? That’s a farther stretch for me.

You see, we’ve actually had automated fast-food delivery for a long time. They’re called vending machines, and they aren’t actually noted for their-high quality products or their ambiance.

Granted, Mickey D’s isn’t long on “ambience” either, but I kind of like to chit-chat with the smiling teens or senior citizens at the counter. Call me weird, but I prefer dealing with people, over figuring out the interface on yet another dang gadget. I’ve kinda perfected the human interface, at least to some extent, and I have this weird notion that people should be respected, even when they have low-end jobs.

An automated fast-food “restaurant” looks an awful lot like a glorified vending machine to me.

As I see it, the whole key should be playing to strengths. Robots and automation do some things way better than people. Business Insider interviewed Ryan Calo, a professor at University of Washington School of Law with expertise in robotics, who said, “For a long time, artificial intelligence has been better than us at highly structured, bounded tasks.” All of the applications we’ve looked at so far in both this and the previous post on this topic have been in that category.

Calo thinks, however, that robots are now, or soon will be, capable of moving beyond “the three D’s: dangerous, dirty, and dull.” It’s a fine line to define (sorry for the rhyme), so where do we draw it? If robots and automation can lift us beyond those “dangerous, dirty, and dull tasks,” isn’t that a net gain? I think it definitely is. If they can ever design a Roomba that cleans the potty, I’m all in!

Ivan Fourie encountered this friendly store clerk in Kyoto 2006, and immortalized her in a photo.

But people right now (and for millennia) do/have done way better at some things than robots and automation have managed so far. The determination to push automation/artificial intelligence beyond those basic limits won’t stop. (we’re talking about humans with an intellectual challenge. Of course they’ll pursue it as far as they can).

But just as industry doesn’t want to talk about the full cost of their initiatives (including environmental and human damage), so the people involved in the “second machine age” don’t want to talk about ALL the costs of their initiatives.

Are these Chinese robots cute enough to be worth their cost in human devaluation? Are they worth the effort of putting “friendly store clerk” and her siblings all over the world into financial devastation?

Would their AIs put good people out of work that they need? Don’t we all need people who are a positive part of their community? The friendly 7-Eleven clerk who brightens our morning? The bank teller who keeps our accounts safe? The shopkeeper who grows her small business locally? The first-generation immigrant family who runs the gas station? The custodian who keeps the school clean and well-maintained?

What’s the human cost of the fancy machines? Do they make life better for the humans in the community, or only for the corporations running the businesses?

I think we’re at a crossroads, in our contemporary life. We can look globally at ALL the costs of the decisions we take, or we can keep on looking only at money in a system skewed to ignore some of the most important costs of all.

Our choice.

Our future.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before it’s News for the future-vision graphic. The photo of the Safeway self-checkout is courtesy of WonderHowTo, and the photo of the ATM machine is from The Northeast Today; many thanks to both of you! The cynical minimum wage meme is from Ron Paul’s “Liberty Report.” Your thanks is that I acknowledged where it came from, dude. You certainly illustrated my point, anyway. Many thanks to NPR’s “All Tech Considered” for the photo of the automated fast-food restaurant. I am grateful to Ivan Fourie’s Flickr Photostream for the the friendly store clerk’s photo. Many thanks to Business Insider for the photo of the Chinese food service robots.

To automate, or not to automate? First thoughts

A Glimpse of the Future

Automation and robotics have been making a lot of inroads, lately, and the trend seems unlikely to change.

Unless you live in a particular fringe political neighborhood, you’re aware that the vast majority of those jobs have been taken by automation designed to boost productivity. According to one study conducted by Ball State University that looked at manufacturing job losses in the US between the years 2000 and 2010, 87% of those jobs went to productivity, but only 13% to trade.

Losing one’s job to a robot is far more likely than losing it to workers in Mexico or China. It’s not really a new story. As the Ball State study illustrates, it’s been going on for decades, and not only in manufacturing. An NBC article from several years ago gave a list of jobs that humans could lose to robots in the near future.

The trend is spreading, inevitably. Sometimes it’s a good thing. Astronauts might be sexy, but humans shouldn’t be the first things we send to new places in space. I think I speak for many when I say I’m happy to see Spirit and Opportunity go to Mars before people brave its hazards.

A NASA artist’s conception of the Mars Rover Spirit.

An argument could be made that automation in certain sectors makes things faster, more efficient, and less error-prone. My husband works in a diagnostic lab where processors and stainers perform many routine tests that once were run by hand. An argument could be made that pharmacy automation might be less subject to corruption or error (though there are many ways humans could take advantage if the system isn’t carefully set up and monitored).

This is an automated slide-maker and stainer for a specific laboratory purpose. It delivers consistent results that would be hard to achieve at speed by hand.

But here we start to run into a gray area. There still are things it seems likely robots are a long way from being able to do as well as a skilled, trained human.

My husband, for instance, is still the experienced tech the doctors call upon to quality-check for diagnostic results whenever they do certain kinds of biopsies.

Automated pharmacy equipment from RoboPharma (yes, that’s really their name).

The pharmacy robot may be able to package up pills at the speed of light, but how will it do when you need advice about the best cream to use for the persistent itch you have, or which syrup might work best for your baby’s cough?

I plan to explore this question in more detail next week.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before It’s News for the “future” graphic, the CNN Money for the graph illustrating the Ball Stat University study, and to Electronicsb2b for the photo of the robotic automotive assembly line. Many thanks to the invaluable Wikipedia for the image of the Mars rover Spirit, to Abbot Labs for the photo of their Cell-Dyn SMS slidemaker and stainer and to RoboPharma for the photo of the automated pharmacy equipment.

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