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#437103 How to Make Sense of Uncertainty in a ...

As the internet churns with information about Covid-19, about the virus that causes the disease, and about what we’re supposed to do to fight it, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. What can we realistically expect for the rest of 2020? And how do we even know what’s realistic?

Today, humanity’s primary, ideal goal is to eliminate the virus, SARS-CoV-2, and Covid-19. Our second-choice goal is to control virus transmission. Either way, we have three big aims: to save lives, to return to public life, and to keep the economy functioning.

To hit our second-choice goal—and maybe even our primary goal—countries are pursuing five major public health strategies. Note that many of these advances cross-fertilize: for example, advances in virus testing and antibody testing will drive data-based prevention efforts.

Five major public health strategies are underway to bring Covid-19 under control and to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
These strategies arise from things we can control based on the things that we know at any given moment. But what about the things we can’t control and don’t yet know?

The biology of the virus and how it interacts with our bodies is what it is, so we should seek to understand it as thoroughly as possible. How long any immunity gained from prior infection lasts—and indeed whether people develop meaningful immunity at all after infection—are open questions urgently in need of greater clarity. Similarly, right now it’s important to focus on understanding rather than making assumptions about environmental factors like seasonality.

But the biggest question on everyone’s lips is, “When?” When will we see therapeutic progress against Covid-19? And when will life get “back to normal”? There are lots of models out there on the internet; which of those models are right? The simple answer is “none of them.” That’s right—it’s almost certain that every model you’ve seen is wrong in at least one detail, if not all of them. But modeling is meant to be a tool for deeper thinking, a way to run mental (and computational) experiments before—and while—taking action. As George E. P. Box famously wrote in 1976, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

Here, we’re seeking useful insights, as opposed to exact predictions, which is why we’re pulling back from quantitative details to get at the mindsets that will support agency and hope. To that end, I’ve been putting together timelines that I believe will yield useful expectations for the next year or two—and asking how optimistic I need to be in order to believe a particular timeline.

For a moderately optimistic scenario to be relevant, breakthroughs in science and technology come at paces expected based on previous efforts and assumptions that turn out to be basically correct; accessibility of those breakthroughs increases at a reasonable pace; regulation achieves its desired effects, without major surprises; and compliance with regulations is reasonably high.

In contrast, if I’m being highly optimistic, breakthroughs in science and technology and their accessibility come more quickly than they ever have before; regulation is evidence-based and successful in the first try or two; and compliance with those regulations is high and uniform. If I’m feeling not-so-optimistic, then I anticipate serious setbacks to breakthroughs and accessibility (with the overturning of many important assumptions), repeated failure of regulations to achieve their desired outcomes, and low compliance with those regulations.

The following scenarios outline the things that need to happen in the fight against Covid-19, when I expect to see them, and how confident I feel in those expectations. They focus on North America and Europe because there are data missing about China’s 2019 outbreak and other regions are still early in their outbreaks. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind throughout: We know more today than we did yesterday, but we still have much to learn. New knowledge derived from greater study and debate will almost certainly inspire ongoing course corrections.

As you dive into the scenarios below, practice these three mindset shifts. First, defeating Covid-19 will be a marathon, not a sprint. We shouldn’t expect life to look like 2019 for the next year or two—if ever. As Ed Yong wrote recently in The Atlantic, “There won’t be an obvious moment when everything is under control and regular life can safely resume.” Second, remember that you have important things to do for at least a year. And third, we are all in this together. There is no “us” and “them.” We must all be alert, responsive, generous, and strong throughout 2020 and 2021—and willing to throw away our assumptions when scientific evidence invalidates them.

The Middle Way: Moderate Optimism
Let’s start with the case in which I have the most confidence: moderate optimism.

This timeline considers milestones through late 2021, the earliest that I believe vaccines will become available. The “normal” timeline for developing a vaccine for diseases like seasonal flu is 18 months, which leads to my projection that we could potentially have vaccines as soon as 18 months from the first quarter of 2020. While Melinda Gates agrees with that projection, others (including AI) believe that 3 to 5 years is far more realistic, based on past vaccine development and the need to test safety and efficacy in humans. However, repurposing existing vaccines against other diseases—or piggybacking off clever synthetic platforms—could lead to vaccines being available sooner. I tried to balance these considerations for this moderately optimistic scenario. Either way, deploying vaccines at the end of 2021 is probably much later than you may have been led to believe by the hype engine. Again, if you take away only one message from this article, remember that the fight against Covid-19 is a marathon, not a sprint.

Here, I’ve visualized a moderately optimistic scenario as a baseline. Think of these timelines as living guides, as opposed to exact predictions. There are still many unknowns. More or less optimistic views (see below) and new information could shift these timelines forward or back and change the details of the strategies.
Based on current data, I expect that the first wave of Covid-19 cases (where we are now) will continue to subside in many areas, leading governments to ease restrictions in an effort to get people back to work. We’re already seeing movement in that direction, with a variety of benchmarks and changes at state and country levels around the world. But depending on the details of the changes, easing restrictions will probably cause a second wave of sickness (see Germany and Singapore), which should lead governments to reimpose at least some restrictions.

In tandem, therapeutic efforts will be transitioning from emergency treatments to treatments that have been approved based on safety and efficacy data in clinical trials. In a moderately optimistic scenario, assuming clinical trials currently underway yield at least a few positive results, this shift to mostly approved therapies could happen as early as the third or fourth quarter of this year and continue from there. One approval that should come rather quickly is for plasma therapies, in which the blood from people who have recovered from Covid-19 is used as a source of antibodies for people who are currently sick.

Companies around the world are working on both viral and antibody testing, focusing on speed, accuracy, reliability, and wide accessibility. While these tests are currently being run in hospitals and research laboratories, at-home testing is a critical component of the mass testing we’ll need to keep viral spread in check. These are needed to minimize the impact of asymptomatic cases, test the assumption that infection yields resistance to subsequent infection (and whether it lasts), and construct potential immunity passports if this assumption holds. Testing is also needed for contact tracing efforts to prevent further spread and get people back to public life. Finally, it’s crucial to our fundamental understanding of the biology of SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19.

We need tests that are very reliable, both in the clinic and at home. So, don’t go buying any at-home test kits just yet, even if you find them online. Wait for reliable test kits and deeper understanding of how a test result translates to everyday realities. If we’re moderately optimistic, in-clinic testing will rapidly expand this quarter and/or next, with the possibility of broadly available, high-quality at-home sampling (and perhaps even analysis) thereafter.

Note that testing is not likely to be a “one-and-done” endeavor, as a person’s infection and immunity status change over time. Expect to be testing yourself—and your family—often as we move later into 2020.

Testing data are also going to inform distancing requirements at the country and local levels. In this scenario, restrictions—at some level of stringency—could persist at least through the end of 2020, as most countries are way behind the curve on testing (Iceland is an informative exception). Governments will likely continue to ask citizens to work from home if at all possible; to wear masks or face coverings in public; to employ heightened hygiene and social distancing in workplaces; and to restrict travel and social gatherings. So while it’s likely we’ll be eating in local restaurants again in 2020 in this scenario, at least for a little while, it’s not likely we’ll be heading to big concerts any time soon.

The Extremes: High and Low Optimism
How would high and low levels of optimism change our moderately optimistic timeline? The milestones are the same, but the time required to achieve them is shorter or longer, respectively. Quantifying these shifts is less important than acknowledging and incorporating a range of possibilities into our view. It pays to pay attention to our bias. Here are a few examples of reasonable possibilities that could shift the moderately optimistic timeline.

When vaccines become available
Vaccine repurposing could shorten the time for vaccines to become available; today, many vaccine candidates are in various stages of testing. On the other hand, difficulties in manufacture and distribution, or faster-than-expected mutation of SARS-CoV-2, could slow vaccine development. Given what we know now, I am not strongly concerned about either of these possibilities—drug companies are rapidly expanding their capabilities, and viral mutation isn’t an urgent concern at this time based on sequencing data—but they could happen.

At first, governments will likely supply vaccines to essential workers such as healthcare workers, but it is essential that vaccines become widely available around the world as quickly and as safely as possible. Overall, I suggest a dose of skepticism when reading highly optimistic claims about a vaccine (or multiple vaccines) being available in 2020. Remember, a vaccine is a knockout punch, not a first line of defense for an outbreak.

When testing hits its stride
While I am confident that testing is a critical component of our response to Covid-19, reliability is incredibly important to testing for SARS-CoV-2 and for immunity to the disease, particularly at home. For an individual, a false negative (being told you don’t have antibodies when you really do) could be just as bad as a false positive (being told you do have antibodies when you really don’t). Those errors are compounded when governments are trying to make evidence-based policies for social and physical distancing.

If you’re highly optimistic, high-quality testing will ramp up quickly as companies and scientists innovate rapidly by cleverly combining multiple test modalities, digital signals, and cutting-edge tech like CRISPR. Pop-up testing labs could also take some pressure off hospitals and clinics.

If things don’t go well, reliability issues could hinder testing, manufacturing bottlenecks could limit availability, and both could hamstring efforts to control spread and ease restrictions. And if it turns out that immunity to Covid-19 isn’t working the way we assumed, then we must revisit our assumptions about our path(s) back to public life, as well as our vaccine-development strategies.

How quickly safe and effective treatments appear
Drug development is known to be long, costly, and fraught with failure. It’s not uncommon to see hope in a drug spike early only to be dashed later on down the road. With that in mind, the number of treatments currently under investigation is astonishing, as is the speed through which they’re proceeding through testing. Breakthroughs in a therapeutic area—for example in treating the seriously ill or in reducing viral spread after an infection takes hold—could motivate changes in the focus of distancing regulations.

While speed will save lives, we cannot overlook the importance of knowing a treatment’s efficacy (does it work against Covid-19?) and safety (does it make you sick in a different, or worse, way?). Repurposing drugs that have already been tested for other diseases is speeding innovation here, as is artificial intelligence.

Remarkable collaborations among governments and companies, large and small, are driving innovation in therapeutics and devices such as ventilators for treating the sick.

Whether government policies are effective and responsive
Those of us who have experienced lockdown are eager for it to be over. Businesses, economists, and governments are also eager to relieve the terrible pressure that is being exerted on the global economy. However, lifting restrictions will almost certainly lead to a resurgence in sickness.

Here, the future is hard to model because there are many, many factors at play, and at play differently in different places—including the extent to which individuals actually comply with regulations.

Reliable testing—both in the clinic and at home—is crucial to designing and implementing restrictions, monitoring their effectiveness, and updating them; delays in reliable testing could seriously hamper this design cycle. Lack of trust in governments and/or companies could also suppress uptake. That said, systems are already in place for contact tracing in East Asia. Other governments could learn important lessons, but must also earn—and keep—their citizens’ trust.

Expect to see restrictions descend and then lift in response to changes in the number of Covid-19 cases and in the effectiveness of our prevention strategies. Also expect country-specific and perhaps even area-specific responses that differ from each other. The benefit of this approach? Governments around the world are running perhaps hundreds of real-time experiments and design cycles in balancing health and the economy, and we can learn from the results.

A Way Out
As Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, told Science magazine, “Science is the exit strategy.” Some of our greatest technological assistance is coming from artificial intelligence, digital tools for collaboration, and advances in biotechnology.

Our exit strategy also needs to include empathy and future visioning—because in the midst of this crisis, we are breaking ground for a new, post-Covid future.

What do we want that future to look like? How will the hard choices we make now about data ethics impact the future of surveillance? Will we continue to embrace inclusiveness and mass collaboration? Perhaps most importantly, will we lay the foundation for successfully confronting future challenges? Whether we’re thinking about the next pandemic (and there will be others) or the cascade of catastrophes that climate change is bringing ever closer—it’s important to remember that we all have the power to become agents of that change.

Special thanks to Ola Kowalewski and Jason Dorrier for significant conversations.

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Posted in Human Robots

#436984 Robots to the Rescue: How They Can Help ...

As the coronavirus pandemic forces people to keep their distance, could this be robots‘ time to shine? A group of scientists think so, and they’re calling for robots to do the “dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs” of infectious disease management.

Social distancing has emerged as one of the most effective strategies for slowing the spread of COVID-19, but it’s also bringing many jobs to a standstill and severely restricting our daily lives. And unfortunately, the one group that can’t rely on its protective benefits are the medical and emergency services workers we’re relying on to save us.

Robots could be a solution, according to the editorial board of Science Robotics, by helping replace humans in a host of critical tasks, from disinfecting hospitals to collecting patient samples and automating lab tests.

According to the authors, the key areas where robots could help are clinical care, logistics, and reconnaissance, which refers to tasks like identifying the infected or making sure people comply with quarantines or social distancing requirements. Outside of the medical sphere, robots could also help keep the economy and infrastructure going by standing in for humans in factories or vital utilities like waste management or power plants.

When it comes to clinical care, robots can play important roles in disease prevention, diagnosis and screening, and patient care, the researchers say. Robots have already been widely deployed to disinfect hospitals and other public spaces either using UV light that kills bugs or by repurposing agricultural robots and drones to spray disinfectant, reducing the exposure of cleaning staff to potentially contaminated surfaces. They are also being used to carry out crucial deliveries of food and medication without exposing humans.

But they could also play an important role in tracking the disease, say the researchers. Thermal cameras combined with image recognition algorithms are already being used to detect potential cases at places like airports, but incorporating them into mobile robots or drones could greatly expand the coverage of screening programs.

A more complex challenge—but one that could significantly reduce medical workers’ exposure to the virus—would be to design robots that could automate the collection of nasal swabs used to test for COVID-19. Similarly automated blood collection for tests could be of significant help, and researchers are already investigating using ultrasound to help robots locate veins to draw blood from.

Convincing people it’s safe to let a robot stick a swab up their nose or jab a needle in their arm might be a hard sell right now, but a potentially more realistic scenario would be to get robots to carry out laboratory tests on collected samples to reduce exposure to lab technicians. Commercial laboratory automation systems already exist, so this might be a more achievable near-term goal.

Not all solutions need to be automated, though. While autonomous systems will be helpful for reducing the workload of stretched health workers, remote systems can still provide useful distancing. Remote control robotics systems are already becoming increasingly common in the delicate business of surgery, so it would be entirely feasible to create remote systems to carry out more prosaic medical tasks.

Such systems would make it possible for experts to contribute remotely in many different places without having to travel. And robotic systems could combine medical tasks like patient monitoring with equally important social interaction for people who may have been shut off from human contact.

In a teleconference last week Guang-Zhong Yang, a medical roboticist from Carnegie Mellon University and founding editor of Science Robotics, highlighted the importance of including both doctors and patients in the design of these robots to ensure they are safe and effective, but also to make sure people trust them to observe social protocols and not invade their privacy.

But Yang also stressed the importance of putting the pieces in place to enable the rapid development and deployment of solutions. During the 2015 Ebola outbreak, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation organized workshops to identify where robotics could help deal with epidemics.

But once the threat receded, attention shifted elsewhere, and by the time the next pandemic came around little progress had been made on potential solutions. The result is that it’s unclear how much help robots will really be able to provide to the COVID-19 response.

That means it’s crucial to invest in a sustained research effort into this field, say the paper’s authors, with more funding and multidisciplinary research partnerships between government agencies and industry so that next time around we will be prepared.

“These events are rare and then it’s just that people start to direct their efforts to other applications,” said Yang. “So I think this time we really need to nail it, because without a sustained approach to this history will repeat itself and robots won’t be ready.”

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Posted in Human Robots

#436944 Is Digital Learning Still Second Best?

As Covid-19 continues to spread, the world has gone digital on an unprecedented scale. Tens of thousands of employees are working from home, and huge conferences, like the Google I/O and Apple WWDC software extravaganzas, plan to experiment with digital events.

Universities too are sending students home. This might have meant an extended break from school not too long ago. But no more. As lecture halls go empty, an experiment into digital learning at scale is ramping up. In the US alone, over 100 universities, from Harvard to Duke, are offering online classes to students to keep the semester going.

While digital learning has been improving for some time, Covid-19 may not only tip us further into a more digitally connected reality, but also help us better appreciate its benefits. This is important because historically, digital learning has been viewed as inferior to traditional learning. But that may be changing.

The Inversion
We often think about digital technologies as ways to reach people without access to traditional services—online learning for children who don’t have schools nearby or telemedicine for patients with no access to doctors. And while these solutions have helped millions of people, they’re often viewed as “second best” and “better than nothing.” Even in more resource-rich environments, there’s an assumption one should pay more to attend an event in person—a concert, a football game, an exercise class—while digital equivalents are extremely cheap or free. Why is this? And is the situation about to change?

Take the case of Dr. Sanjeev Arora, a professor of medicine at the University of New Mexico. Arora started Project Echo because he was frustrated by how many late-stage cases of hepatitis C he encountered in rural New Mexico. He realized that if he had reached patients sooner, he could have prevented needless deaths. The solution? Digital learning for local health workers.

Project Echo connects rural healthcare practitioners to specialists at top health centers by video. The approach is collaborative: Specialists share best practices and work through cases with participants to apply them in the real world and learn from edge cases. Added to expert presentations, there are lots of opportunities to ask questions and interact with specialists.

The method forms a digital loop of learning, practice, assessment, and adjustment.

Since 2003, Project Echo has scaled to 800 locations in 39 countries and trained over 90,000 healthcare providers. Most notably, a study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that the outcomes of hepatitis C treatment given by Project Echo trained healthcare workers in rural and underserved areas were similar to outcomes at university medical centers. That is, digital learning in this context was equivalent to high quality in-person learning.

If that is possible today, with simple tools, will they surpass traditional medical centers and schools in the future? Can digital learning more generally follow suit and have the same success? Perhaps. Going digital brings its own special toolset to the table too.

The Benefits of Digital
If you’re training people online, you can record the session to better understand their engagement levels—or even add artificial intelligence to analyze it in real time. Ahura AI, for example, founded by Bryan Talebi, aims to upskill workers through online training. Early study of their method suggests they can significantly speed up learning by analyzing users’ real-time emotions—like frustration or distraction—and adjusting the lesson plan or difficulty on the fly.

Other benefits of digital learning include the near-instantaneous download of course materials—rather than printing and shipping books—and being able to more easily report grades and other results, a requirement for many schools and social services organizations. And of course, as other digitized industries show, digital learning can grow and scale further at much lower costs.

To that last point, 360ed, a digital learning startup founded in 2016 by Hla Hla Win, now serves millions of children in Myanmar with augmented reality lesson plans. And Global Startup Ecosystem, founded by Christine Souffrant Ntim and Einstein Kofi Ntim in 2015, is the world’s first and largest digital accelerator program. Their entirely online programs support over 1,000 companies in 90 countries. It’s astonishing how fast both of these organizations have grown.

Notably, both examples include offline experiences too. Many of the 360ed lesson plans come with paper flashcards children use with their smartphones because the online-offline interaction improves learning. The Global Startup Ecosystem also hosts about 10 additional in-person tech summits around the world on various topics through a related initiative.

Looking further ahead, probably the most important benefit of online learning will be its potential to integrate with other digital systems in the workplace.

Imagine a medical center that has perfect information about every patient and treatment in real time and that this information is (anonymously and privately) centralized, analyzed, and shared with medical centers, research labs, pharmaceutical companies, clinical trials, policy makers, and medical students around the world. Just as self-driving cars can learn to drive better by having access to the experiences of other self-driving cars, so too can any group working to solve complex, time-sensitive challenges learn from and build on each other’s experiences.

Why This Matters
While in the long term the world will likely end up combining the best aspects of traditional and digital learning, it’s important in the near term to be more aware of the assumptions we make about digital technologies. Some of the most pioneering work in education, healthcare, and other industries may not be highly visible right now because it is in a virtual setting. Most people are unaware, for example, that the busiest emergency room in rural America is already virtual.

Once they start converging with other digital technologies, these innovations will likely become the mainstream system for all of us. Which raises more questions: What is the best business model for these virtual services? If they start delivering better healthcare and educational outcomes than traditional institutions, should they charge more? Hopefully, we will see an even bigger shift occurring, in which technology allows us to provide high quality education, healthcare, and other services to everyone at more affordable prices than today.

These are some of the topics we can consider as Covid-19 forces us into uncharted territory.

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Posted in Human Robots

#436470 Retail Robots Are on the Rise—at Every ...

The robots are coming! The robots are coming! On our sidewalks, in our skies, in our every store… Over the next decade, robots will enter the mainstream of retail.

As countless robots work behind the scenes to stock shelves, serve customers, and deliver products to our doorstep, the speed of retail will accelerate.

These changes are already underway. In this blog, we’ll elaborate on how robots are entering the retail ecosystem.

Let’s dive in.

Robot Delivery
On August 3rd, 2016, Domino’s Pizza introduced the Domino’s Robotic Unit, or “DRU” for short. The first home delivery pizza robot, the DRU looks like a cross between R2-D2 and an oversized microwave.

LIDAR and GPS sensors help it navigate, while temperature sensors keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Already, it’s been rolled out in ten countries, including New Zealand, France, and Germany, but its August 2016 debut was critical—as it was the first time we’d seen robotic home delivery.

And it won’t be the last.

A dozen or so different delivery bots are fast entering the market. Starship Technologies, for instance, a startup created by Skype founders Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla, has a general-purpose home delivery robot. Right now, the system is an array of cameras and GPS sensors, but upcoming models will include microphones, speakers, and even the ability—via AI-driven natural language processing—to communicate with customers. Since 2016, Starship has already carried out 50,000 deliveries in over 100 cities across 20 countries.

Along similar lines, Nuro—co-founded by Jiajun Zhu, one of the engineers who helped develop Google’s self-driving car—has a miniature self-driving car of its own. Half the size of a sedan, the Nuro looks like a toaster on wheels, except with a mission. This toaster has been designed to carry cargo—about 12 bags of groceries (version 2.0 will carry 20)—which it’s been doing for select Kroger stores since 2018. Domino’s also partnered with Nuro in 2019.

As these delivery bots take to our streets, others are streaking across the sky.

Back in 2016, Amazon came first, announcing Prime Air—the e-commerce giant’s promise of drone delivery in 30 minutes or less. Almost immediately, companies ranging from 7-Eleven and Walmart to Google and Alibaba jumped on the bandwagon.

While critics remain doubtful, the head of the FAA’s drone integration department recently said that drone deliveries may be “a lot closer than […] the skeptics think. [Companies are] getting ready for full-blown operations. We’re processing their applications. I would like to move as quickly as I can.”

In-Store Robots
While delivery bots start to spare us trips to the store, those who prefer shopping the old-fashioned way—i.e., in person—also have plenty of human-robot interaction in store. In fact, these robotics solutions have been around for a while.

In 2010, SoftBank introduced Pepper, a humanoid robot capable of understanding human emotion. Pepper is cute: 4 feet tall, with a white plastic body, two black eyes, a dark slash of a mouth, and a base shaped like a mermaid’s tail. Across her chest is a touch screen to aid in communication. And there’s been a lot of communication. Pepper’s cuteness is intentional, as it matches its mission: help humans enjoy life as much as possible.

Over 12,000 Peppers have been sold. She serves ice cream in Japan, greets diners at a Pizza Hut in Singapore, and dances with customers at a Palo Alto electronics store. More importantly, Pepper’s got company.

Walmart uses shelf-stocking robots for inventory control. Best Buy uses a robo-cashier, allowing select locations to operate 24-7. And Lowe’s Home Improvement employs the LoweBot—a giant iPad on wheels—to help customers find the items they need while tracking inventory along the way.

Warehouse Bots
Yet the biggest benefit robots provide might be in-warehouse logistics.

In 2012, when Amazon dished out $775 million for Kiva Systems, few could predict that just 6 years later, 45,000 Kiva robots would be deployed at all of their fulfillment centers, helping process a whopping 306 items per second during the Christmas season.

And many other retailers are following suit.

Order jeans from the Gap, and soon they’ll be sorted, packed, and shipped with the help of a Kindred robot. Remember the old arcade game where you picked up teddy bears with a giant claw? That’s Kindred, only her claw picks up T-shirts, pants, and the like, placing them in designated drop-off zones that resemble tiny mailboxes (for further sorting or shipping).

The big deal here is democratization. Kindred’s robot is cheap and easy to deploy, allowing smaller companies to compete with giants like Amazon.

Final Thoughts
For retailers interested in staying in business, there doesn’t appear to be much choice in the way of robotics.

By 2024, the US minimum wage is projected to be $15 an hour (the House of Representatives has already passed the bill, but the wage hike is meant to unfold gradually between now and 2025), and many consider that number far too low.

Yet, as human labor costs continue to climb, robots won’t just be coming, they’ll be here, there, and everywhere. It’s going to become increasingly difficult for store owners to justify human workers who call in sick, show up late, and can easily get injured. Robots work 24-7. They never take a day off, never need a bathroom break, health insurance, or parental leave.

Going forward, this spells a growing challenge of technological unemployment (a blog topic I will cover in the coming month). But in retail, robotics usher in tremendous benefits for companies and customers alike.

And while professional re-tooling initiatives and the transition of human capital from retail logistics to a booming experience economy take hold, robotic retail interaction and last-mile delivery will fundamentally transform our relationship with commerce.

This blog comes from The Future is Faster Than You Think—my upcoming book, to be released Jan 28th, 2020. To get an early copy and access up to $800 worth of pre-launch giveaways, sign up here!

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Posted in Human Robots

#436466 How Two Robots Learned to Grill and ...

The list of things robots can do seems to be growing by the week. They can play sports, help us explore outer space and the deep sea, take over some of our boring everyday tasks, and even assemble Ikea furniture.

Now they can add one more accomplishment to the list: grilling and serving a hot dog.

It seems like a pretty straightforward task, and as far as grilling goes, hot dogs are about as easy as it gets (along with, maybe, burgers? Hot dogs require more rotation, but it’s easier to tell when they’re done since they’re lighter in color).

Let’s paint a picture: you’re manning the grill at your family’s annual Fourth of July celebration. You’ve got a 10-pack of plump, juicy beef franks and a hungry crowd of relatives whose food-to-alcohol ratio is getting pretty skewed—they need some solid calories, pronto. What are the steps you need to take to get those franks from package to plate?

Each one needs to be placed on the grill, rotated every couple minutes for even cooking, removed from the grill when you deem it’s done, then—if you’re the kind of guy or gal who goes the extra mile—placed in a bun and dressed with ketchup, mustard, pickles, and the like before being handed over to salivating, too-loud Uncle Hector or sweet, bored Cousin Margaret.

While carrying out your grillmaster duties, you know better than to drop the hot dogs on the ground, leave them cooking on one side for too long, squeeze them to the point of breaking or bursting, and any other hot-dog-ruining amateur moves.

But for a robot, that’s a lot to figure out, especially if they have no prior knowledge of grilling hot dogs (which, well, most robots don’t).

As described in a paper published in this week’s Science Robotics, a team from Boston University programmed two robotic arms to use reinforcement learning—a branch of machine learning in which software gathers information about its environment then learns from it by replaying its experiences and incorporating rewards—to cook and serve hot dogs.

The team used a set of formulas to specify and combine tasks (“pick up hot dog and place on the grill”), meet safety requirements (“always avoid collisions”), and incorporate general prior knowledge (“you cannot pick up another hot dog if you are already holding one”).

Baxter and Jaco—as the two robots were dubbed—were trained through computer simulations. The paper’s authors emphasized their use of what they call a “formal specification language” for training the software, with the aim of generating easily-interpretable task descriptions. In reinforcement learning, they explain, being able to understand how a reward function influences an AI’s learning process is a key component in understanding the system’s behavior—but most systems lack this quality, and are thus likely to be lumped into the ‘black box’ of AI.

The robots’ decisions throughout the hot dog prep process—when to turn a hot dog, when to take it off the grill, and so on—are, the authors write, “easily interpretable from the beginning because the language is very similar to plain English.”

Besides being a step towards more explainable AI systems, Baxter and Jaco are another example of fast-food robots—following in the footsteps of their burger and pizza counterparts—that may take over some repetitive manual tasks currently performed by human workers. As robots’ capabilities improve through incremental progress like this, they’ll be able to take on additional tasks.

In a not-so-distant future, then, you just may find yourself throwing back drinks with Uncle Hector and Cousin Margaret while your robotic replacement mans the grill, churning out hot dogs that are perfectly cooked every time.

Image Credit: Image by Muhammad Ribkhan from Pixabay Continue reading

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