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Every year, for just a few days in a major city, a small team of roboticists get to live the dream: ordering around their own personal robot butlers. In carefully-constructed replicas of a restaurant scene or a domestic setting, these robots perform any number of simple algorithmic tasks. “Get the can of beans from the shelf. Greet the visitors to the museum. Help the humans with their shopping. Serve the customers at the restaurant.”
This is Robocup @ Home, the annual tournament where teams of roboticists put their autonomous service robots to the test for practical domestic applications. The tasks seem simple and mundane, but considering the technology required reveals that they’re really not.
The Robot Butler Contest
Say you want a robot to fetch items in the supermarket. In a crowded, noisy environment, the robot must understand your commands, ask for clarification, and map out and navigate an unfamiliar environment, avoiding obstacles and people as it does so. Then it must recognize the product you requested, perhaps in a cluttered environment, perhaps in an unfamiliar orientation. It has to grasp that product appropriately—recall that there are entire multi-million-dollar competitions just dedicated to developing robots that can grasp a range of objects—and then return it to you.
It’s a job so simple that a child could do it—and so complex that teams of smart roboticists can spend weeks programming and engineering, and still end up struggling to complete simplified versions of this task. Of course, the child has the advantage of millions of years of evolutionary research and development, while the first robots that could even begin these tasks were only developed in the 1970s.
Even bearing this in mind, Robocup @ Home can feel like a place where futurist expectations come crashing into technologist reality. You dream of a smooth-voiced, sardonic JARVIS who’s already made your favorite dinner when you come home late from work; you end up shouting “remember the biscuits” at a baffled, ungainly droid in aisle five.
Caring for the Elderly
Famously, Japan is one of the most robo-enthusiastic nations in the world; they are the nation that stunned us all with ASIMO in 2000, and several studies have been conducted into the phenomenon. It’s no surprise, then, that humanoid robotics should be seriously considered as a solution to the crisis of the aging population. The Japanese government, as part of its robots strategy, has already invested $44 million in their development.
Toyota’s Human Support Robot (HSR-2) is a simple but programmable robot with a single arm; it can be remote-controlled to pick up objects and can monitor patients. HSR-2 has become the default robot for use in Robocup @ Home tournaments, at least in tasks that involve manipulating objects.
Alongside this, Toyota is working on exoskeletons to assist people in walking after strokes. It may surprise you to learn that nurses suffer back injuries more than any other occupation, at roughly three times the rate of construction workers, due to the day-to-day work of lifting patients. Toyota has a Care Assist robot/exoskeleton designed to fix precisely this problem by helping care workers with the heavy lifting.
The Home of the Future
The enthusiasm for domestic robotics is easy to understand and, in fact, many startups already sell robots marketed as domestic helpers in some form or another. In general, though, they skirt the immensely complicated task of building a fully capable humanoid robot—a task that even Google’s skunk-works department gave up on, at least until recently.
It’s plain to see why: far more research and development is needed before these domestic robots could be used reliably and at a reasonable price. Consumers with expectations inflated by years of science fiction saturation might find themselves frustrated as the robots fail to perform basic tasks.
Instead, domestic robotics efforts fall into one of two categories. There are robots specialized to perform a domestic task, like iRobot’s Roomba, which stuck to vacuuming and became the most successful domestic robot of all time by far.
The tasks need not necessarily be simple, either: the impressive but expensive automated kitchen uses the world’s most dexterous hands to cook meals, providing it can recognize the ingredients. Other robots focus on human-robot interaction, like Jibo: they essentially package the abilities of a voice assistant like Siri, Cortana, or Alexa to respond to simple questions and perform online tasks in a friendly, dynamic robot exterior.
In this way, the future of domestic automation starts to look a lot more like smart homes than a robot or domestic servant. General robotics is difficult in the same way that general artificial intelligence is difficult; competing with humans, the great all-rounders, is a challenge. Getting superhuman performance at a more specific task, however, is feasible and won’t cost the earth.
Individual startups without the financial might of a Google or an Amazon can develop specialized robots, like Seven Dreamers’ laundry robot, and hope that one day it will form part of a network of autonomous robots that each have a role to play in the household.
The Smart Home has been a staple of futurist expectations for a long time, to the extent that movies featuring smart homes out of control are already a cliché. But critics of the smart home idea—and of the internet of things more generally—tend to focus on the idea that, more often than not, software just adds an additional layer of things that can break (NSFW), in exchange for minimal added convenience. A toaster that can short-circuit is bad enough, but a toaster that can refuse to serve you toast because its firmware is updating is something else entirely.
That’s before you even get into the security vulnerabilities, which are all the more important when devices are installed in your home and capable of interacting with them. The idea of a smart watch that lets you keep an eye on your children might sound like something a security-conscious parent would like: a smart watch that can be hacked to track children, listen in on their surroundings, and even fool them into thinking a call is coming from their parents is the stuff of nightmares.
Key to many of these problems is the lack of standardization for security protocols, and even the products themselves. The idea of dozens of startups each developing a highly-specialized piece of robotics to perform a single domestic task sounds great in theory, until you realize the potential hazards and pitfalls of getting dozens of incompatible devices to work together on the same system.
It seems inevitable that there are yet more layers of domestic drudgery that can be automated away, decades after the first generation of time-saving domestic devices like the dishwasher and vacuum cleaner became mainstream. With projected market values into the billions and trillions of dollars, there is no shortage of industry interest in ironing out these kinks. But, for now at least, the answer to the question: “Where’s my robot butler?” is that it is gradually, painstakingly learning how to sort through groceries.
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The human mind can be a confusing and overwhelming place. Despite incredible leaps in human progress, many of us still struggle to make our peace with our thoughts. The roots of this are complex and multifaceted. To find explanations for the global mental health epidemic, one can tap into neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology, or simply observe the meaningless systems that dominate our modern-day world.
This is not only the context of our reality but also that of the critically-acclaimed Netflix series, Maniac. Psychological dark comedy meets science fiction, Maniac is a retro, futuristic, and hallucinatory trip that is filled with hidden symbols. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the series tells the story of two strangers who decide to participate in the final stage of a “groundbreaking” pharmaceutical trial—one that combines novel pharmaceuticals with artificial intelligence, and promises to make their emotional pain go away.
Naturally, things don’t go according to plan.
From exams used for testing defense mechanisms to techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy, the narrative infuses genuine psychological science. As perplexing as the series may be to some viewers, many of the tools depicted actually have a strong grounding in current technological advancements.
Catalysts for Alleviating Suffering
In the therapy of Maniac, participants undergo a three-day trial wherein they ingest three pills and appear to connect their consciousness to a superintelligent AI. Each participant is hurled into the traumatic experiences imprinted in their subconscious and forced to cope with them in a series of hallucinatory and dream-like experiences.
Perhaps the most recognizable parallel that can be drawn is with the latest advancements in psychedelic therapy. Psychedelics are a class of drugs that alter the experience of consciousness, and often cause radical changes in perception and cognitive processes.
Through a process known as transient hypofrontality, the executive “over-thinking” parts of our brains get a rest, and deeper areas become more active. This experience, combined with the breakdown of the ego, is often correlated with feelings of timelessness, peacefulness, presence, unity, and above all, transcendence.
Despite being not addictive and extremely difficult to overdose on, regulators looked down on the use of psychedelics for decades and many continue to dismiss them as “party drugs.” But in the last few years, all of this began to change.
Earlier this summer, the FDA granted breakthrough therapy designation to MDMA for the treatment of PTSD, after several phases of successful trails. Similar research has discovered that Psilocybin (also known as magic mushrooms) combined with therapy is far more effective than traditional forms of treatment to treat depression and anxiety. Today, there is a growing and overwhelming body of research that proves that not only are psychedelics such as LSD, MDMA, or Psylicybin effective catalysts to alleviate suffering and enhance the human condition, but they are potentially the most effective tools out there.
It’s important to realize that these substances are not solutions on their own, but rather catalysts for more effective therapy. They can be groundbreaking, but only in the right context and setting.
In Maniac, the medication-assisted therapy is guided by what appears to be a super-intelligent form of artificial intelligence called the GRTA, nicknamed Gertie. Gertie, who is a “guide” in machine form, accesses the minds of the participants through what appears to be a futuristic brain-scanning technology and curates customized hallucinatory experiences with the goal of accelerating the healing process.
Such a powerful form of brain-scanning technology is not unheard of. Current levels of scanning technology are already allowing us to decipher dreams and connect three human brains, and are only growing exponentially. Though they are nowhere as advanced as Gertie (we have a long way to go before we get to this kind of general AI), we are also seeing early signs of AI therapy bots, chatbots that listen, think, and communicate with users like a therapist would.
The parallels between current advancements in mental health therapy and the methods in Maniac can be startling, and are a testament to how science fiction and the arts can be used to explore the existential implications of technology.
Not Necessarily a Dystopia
While there are many ingenious similarities between the technology in Maniac and the state of mental health therapy, it’s important to recognize the stark differences. Like many other blockbuster science fiction productions, Maniac tells a fundamentally dystopian tale.
The series tells the story of the 73rd iteration of a controversial drug trial, one that has experienced many failures and even led to various participants being braindead. The scientists appear to be evil, secretive, and driven by their own superficial agendas and deep unresolved emotional issues.
In contrast, clinicians and researchers are not only required to file an “investigational new drug application” with the FDA (and get approval) but also update the agency with safety and progress reports throughout the trial.
Furthermore, many of today’s researchers are driven by a strong desire to contribute to the well-being and progress of our species. Even more, the results of decades of research by organizations like MAPS have been exceptionally promising and aligned with positive values. While Maniac is entertaining and thought-provoking, viewers must not forget the positive potential of such advancements in mental health therapy.
Science, technology, and psychology aside, Maniac is a deep commentary on the human condition and the often disorienting states that pain us all. Within any human lifetime, suffering is inevitable. It is the disproportionate, debilitating, and unjust levels of suffering that we ought to tackle as a society. Ultimately, Maniac explores whether advancements in science and technology can help us live not a life devoid of suffering, but one where it is balanced with fulfillment.
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