2020年5月21日 星期四

On Tech: Robots! (Don’t get too excited.)

Robots are cool. But we should be skeptical of emerging technology.

Robots! (Don’t get too excited.)

Barry Doupé

We want cool technology like jet packs and driverless cars, and we WANT IT EVERYWHERE RIGHT NOW.

My colleague Cade Metz will kill your dreams.

He and Erin Griffith wrote this week about one British city where sidewalk-roaming robots that can deliver groceries are in high demand during the pandemic. Yay for robot helpers, right?! Optimists imagine what else they can do once the technology progresses.

Cade has affection for a fictional killer supercomputer, which says something about his tech optimism. He explained to me the limitations of delivery robots, and why they’ll probably never be widely available.

SHIRA: In this one city, Milton Keynes, who is benefiting from the robot deliveries?

CADE: Before the pandemic, a resident of Milton Keynes, Liss Page, thought these robots were fascinating but mostly pointless. On her jogs, she’d wind up alongside a robot, and she would talk to it — almost tease it.

Then the pandemic happened, and she was advised not to leave her apartment because of pre-existing health conditions. Those robots are now vital to bring her groceries — when the stores are in stock.

That’s very helpful right now. So why, then, are you a robot-delivery skeptic?

These robots can’t even serve everyone in Milton Keynes, which is ideally suited to robot deliveries because it has bike and pedestrian paths alongside the roadways. Almost nowhere else is set up for these deliveries on a wide scale.

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You can see what these robots can do in small ways or in certain places, but you also see the limitations when you extrapolate that out. People vandalize these robots for kicks. The robots get stuck, and humans have to take over remotely. They can’t carry much. If you have a family, it’s not great to be limited to a couple of grocery bags.

So robot deliveries aren’t coming to my neighborhood soon?

Probably not. Prices will come down, and autonomous technology will improve, but there are limits to how many of these things you can put on a sidewalk.

And delivery robots only work long term if they’re cheaper than humans doing the same thing. That’s not going to happen if robots stay confined to a tiny number of places like Milton Keynes or college campuses.

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You wrote earlier this month about problems with driverless cars, and now you’re picking on delivery robots. Are you a killjoy?

Look, over the past 10 years there’s been a lot of progress, but you have to be skeptical of emerging technology. Otherwise you get an unrealistic view of what’s possible and miss where technologies go wrong.

OK, that’s fair. Now tell us, why are people infatuated with robots? We think they’re adorable or villainous.

They fascinate us and scare us. All the movies and television we’ve watched for the last 60 years about robots and artificial intelligence have been burned into our brains. It really affects the expectations we have of technology.

What’s your favorite artificial being in pop culture?

I’m partial to HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Hal is a wonderful character — and a flawed one. He shows where machines can go right, and where they can go wrong.

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WFH forever? Who really knows

There are office workers and their bosses who are itching to return to cubicle life fast. And others who are saying goodbye forever to toiling in an office.

And then there’s Evan Spiegel, Snapchat’s chief executive, who says — sensibly — who the heck knows?

Snapchat’s headquarters in the Los Angeles area closed in March, and people scattered to work remotely. The company is now telling employees they can work remotely at least through September, and it’s assessing when and how to reopen safely. The squishiness of the message doesn’t sit well with everyone.

“People want certainty, and there’s a huge amount of pressure as a leader to make definitive statements,” Spiegel said in a conversation Wednesday (by video chat, not Snapchat) with New York Times editors and reporters. “I think it’s important that we remain flexible in a situation that is changing rapidly.”

Snapchat, which has more than 3,000 employees, has been planning for a couple months on how to reopen offices. It’s keeping track of business safety requirements issued by local authorities, and Snapchat’s own. It has assessed which teams to invite back to offices first based on job requirements. Someone who needs access to high-end video editing equipment available only at the office, for example, would be higher on the list of returnees.

Spiegel and his wife, the model and skincare entrepreneur Miranda Kerr, have two young sons. Like many parents, he said he had mixed feelings about working remotely.

It’s been challenging, he said, for two working adults and their children to manage under the same roof 24/7. But, Spiegel said, “I get to spend time with my family, which has led to more fulfillment than I’ve ever had in my life.”

Before we go …

  • Help getting connected during the pandemic. Maybe: Internet providers like Charter and Comcast promised to help low-income people get or stay online during the pandemic. But taking them up on the offer hasn’t always been easy, my colleague David McCabe reported.
  • Everything you need to know about tracking disease, with humans: ProPublica has the best explanation I’ve seen for how disease detectives track down people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus. As I’ve written here, this is a labor-intensive process for which smartphone location data may (or may not) help a little.
  • Banal and utterly bizarre: A glitch over smartphone photo formats is causing some high school students to fail advanced placement tests, The Verge reported. Some test takers submit photos of their virtual test sheets, but the testing website doesn’t support the default format on some iPhones and newer Android phones.

Hugs to this

Move over, BBC Dad. My newest telecast-from-home star is cat fight lady.

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