Robots for Climate

On 20 September 2019 FridaysforFuture had called for worldwide climate strikes. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world took to the streets to protest for more sustainable industry and long-term climate policies to fight global warming. Technological progress and the protection of the environment do not necessarily have to contradict. Quite the opposite, we will present 3 robots which show that technology can be used to achieve climate goals. Planting trees is the most efficient strategy to recover biodiversity and stop climate change. However, this method requires lots of human power. The GrowBot automates this task resulting in a planting rate that is 10 times faster than trained human planters. In contrast to planting drones, the little truck-alike robot not only spreads seeds, instead it plants small trees into the soil which gives them a better chance to survive and foster reforestation. The bio-inspired Row-bot converts organic matter into operating power just as the water boatman (a bug). The robot’s engine is based on a microbial fuel cell (MFC) which enables the robot to swim. Researchers from the Bristol Robotics Laboratory developed the 3D-printed Row-bot for environmental clean-up operations such as harmful algal bloom, oil spills or monitoring the impact of (natural or man-made) environmental catastrophes. Next-level-recycling like in the movie WALL·E can be expected with the sorting robot RoCycle which is developed at MIT. Other than classic recycling machines the robot is capable of distinguishing paper, plastic and metal carbage by using pressure sensors. This tactile solution is 85% accurate at detecting in stationary use and 63% when attached to an assembly line. Through cameras and magnets, the researchers aim to optimise recycling to help cleaning Earth.

Towards Full Body Fakes

“Within the field of deepfakes, or ‘synthetic media’ as researchers call it, much of the attention has been focused on fake faces potentially wreaking havoc on political reality, as well as other deep learning algorithms that can, for instance, mimic a person’s writing style and voice. But yet another branch of synthetic media technology is fast evolving: full body deepfakes.” (Fast Company, 21 September 2019) Last year, researchers from the University of California Berkeley demonstrated in an impressive way how deep learning can be used to transfer dance moves from a professional onto the bodies of amateurs. Also in 2018, a team from the University of Heidelberg published a paper on teaching machines to realistically render human movements. And in spring of this year, a Japanese company developed an AI that can generate whole body models of nonexistent persons. “While it’s clear that full body deepfakes have interesting commercial applications, like deepfake dancing apps or in fields like athletics and biomedical research, malicious use cases are an increasing concern amid today’s polarized political climate riven by disinformation and fake news.” (Fast Company, 21 September 2019) Was anyone really in this area, did he or she really take part in a demonstration and throw stones? In the future you won’t know for sure.

Robot Priests can Perform your Funeral

“Robot priests can bless you, advise you, and even perform your funeral” – this is the title of an article published in Vox on 9 September 2019. “A new priest named Mindar is holding forth at Kodaiji, a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. Like other clergy members, this priest can deliver sermons and move around to interface with worshippers. But Mindar comes with some … unusual traits. A body made of aluminum and silicone, for starters.” (Vox, 9 September 2019) The robot looks like Kannon, the Buddhist deity of mercy. According to Vox, it is an attempt to reignite people’s passion for their faith in a country where religious affiliation is on the decline. “For now, Mindar is not AI-powered. It just recites the same preprogrammed sermon about the Heart Sutra over and over. But the robot’s creators say they plan to give it machine-learning capabilities that’ll enable it to tailor feedback to worshippers’ specific spiritual and ethical problems.” (Vox, 9 September 2019) There is hope that the robot will not bring people back to faith, but rather enthuse them for the knowledge of science – the science that Mindar created.

Pepper’s New Job

SoftBank Robotics has announced that it will operate a cafe in Tokyo. The humanoid robot Pepper is to play a major role in this. But people will not disappear. They will of course be guests, but also, as in the traditional establishments of this kind, waitresses and waiters. At least that’s what ZDNET reports. “The cafe, called Pepper Parlor, will utilise both human and robot staff to serve customers, and marks the company’s first time operating a restaurant or cafe.” (ZDNET, 13 September 2019) According to SoftBank Robotics, the aim is “to create a space where people can easily experience the coexistence of people and robots and enjoy the evolution of robots and the future of living with robots”. “We want to make robots not only for convenience and efficiency, but also to expand the possibilities of people and bring happiness.” (ZDNET, 13 September 2019) This opens up new career opportunities for the little robot, which recognizes and shows emotions, and which listens and talks and is trained in high-five. It has long since left its family’s lap, it can be found in shopping malls and nursing homes. Now it will be serving waffles in a cafe in Tokyo.

Ethics in AI for Kids and Teens

In summer 2019, Blakeley Payne ran a very special course at MIT. According to an article in Quartz magazine, the graduate student had created an AI ethics curriculum to make kids and teens aware of how AI systems mediate their everyday lives. “By starting early, she hopes the kids will become more conscious of how AI is designed and how it can manipulate them. These lessons also help prepare them for the jobs of the future, and potentially become AI designers rather than just consumers.” (Quartz, 4 September 2019) Not everyone is convinced that artificial intelligence is the right topic for kids and teens. “Some argue that developing kindness, citizenship, or even a foreign language might serve students better than learning AI systems that could be outdated by the time they graduate. But Payne sees middle school as a unique time to start kids understanding the world they live in: it’s around ages 10 to 14 year that kids start to experience higher-level thoughts and deal with complex moral reasoning. And most of them have smartphones loaded with all sorts of AI.” (Quartz, 4 September 2019) There is no doubt that the MIT course could be a role model for schools around the world. The renowned university once again seems to be setting new standards.

Permanent Record

The whistleblower Edward Snowden spoke to the Guardian about his new life and concerns for the future. The reason for the two-hour interview was his book “Permanent Record”, which will be published on 17 September 2019. “In his book, Snowden describes in detail for the first time his background, and what led him to leak details of the secret programmes being run by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK’s secret communication headquarters, GCHQ.” (Guardian, 13 September 2019) According to the Guardian, Snowden said: “The greatest danger still lies ahead, with the refinement of artificial intelligence capabilities, such as facial and pattern recognition.” (Guardian, 13 September 2019) The number of public appearances by and interviews with him is rather manageable. On 7 September 2016, the movie “Snowden” was shown as a preview in the Cinéma Vendôme in Brussels. Jan Philipp Albrecht, Member of the European Parliament, invited Viviane Reding, the Luxembourg politician and journalist, and authors and scientists such as Yvonne Hofstetter and Oliver Bendel. After the preview, Edward Snowden was connected to the participants via videoconferencing for almost three quarters of an hour.