Jul 012016

Last May 7 45-year-old Joshua Brown was killed when his car hit a truck just outside Willston, Florida. His Tesla was operating in ‘autopilot mode’ and he was the first death in a driverless car accident.

Now the investigation and the speculation into the Mr Brown’s unfortunate demise begin. It’s worth watching to see how the accident will change public perception and government regulation of autonomous vehicles.

What’s notable is Tesla are careful not to recommend leaving the car to its own devices, as The Verge reports.

Tesla reiterates that customers are required to agree that the system is in a “public beta phase” before they can use it, and that the system was designed with the expectation that drivers keep their hands on the wheel and that the driver is required to “maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle.” Safety-critical vehicle features rolled out in public betas are new territory for regulators, and rules haven’t been set.

Another aspect that should concern users and regulators is Tesla’s software industry attitude towards liability and safety in dismissing the car’s flaws as being an unfortunate consequence of imperfect beta software. That may cut it in the world of Microsoft Windows 3.11 but it doesn’t cut it when lives are at stake in the motor industry.

Jan 222016

It turns out Seppukuma is a parody and I fell for it. My apologies.

Continuing the theme of Japanese robotics meet SeppuKuma, the friendly robot bear that might be the last thing you ever see.

When we look at the future of work, health care comes up as one of the fields that is least vulnerable to automation. Seppukuma shows we shouldn’t take that for granted.

Seppukuma is also an interesting example of how technology can subvert laws. Banning assisted suicide means little when a robot can be programmed to it.

As cheap and accessible robotics become commonplace so too do devices like suicide assisting androids which raise a whole range of legal and ethical issues.

Even though Seppukuma is a joke, the technology is feasible. We need to consider the issues and risk these devices will raise.

Jan 212016

One of the understated benefits of automation and robotics is it allows the elderly and disabled more mobility.

Facing an aging population, the Japanese are unsurpringly ahead of the rest of the world in understanding this and, as the Wall Street Journal reports, researchers are investigating how driverless cars can help the elderly get around.

While autonomous vehicles of all sizes promise greater mobility to many people currently restricted in their access, robotics also promises to extend our working lives just as mechanisation has over the past two hundred years.

Jul 212015

Can unmanned aircraft solve Australia’s feral animal problem? Startup Ninox Robotics believes sending military-grade unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into the country’s outback can help farmers control pests such as wild dogs and pigs on their sprawling properties.

“Australian landholders and managers have been struggling against the problem of invasive pest species for decades, including feral dogs, pigs, deer and rabbits,” says the co-founder and CEO of privately owned Ninox, Marcus Elrich.

Government steps in

Regulatory requirements on commercial drones such as their only being allowed for line of sight operations during daylight hours and below 400m has limited the deployment of UAVs in large scale agricultural applications, particularly with feral animals that tend to come out at night.

Ninox’s drones, supplied and operated by Israeli UAV supplier Bluebird, are licensed to operate in the dark and up to 50km from their base. They also have a detachable head that allows operators to switch cameras for different operations, allowing for normal cameras during daytime and infrared at night.

The trial, being conducted by Ninox Robotics, is the most ambitious civilian drone trial ever conducted in Australian airspace. It utilises state of the art UAVs with advanced real time thermal imaging capabilities to detect invasive pests in rural areas.

Currently Ninox only has approval from the Australian Civil Aviation and Safety Authority (CASA) to run three-week trials at selected sites in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales.

Services to farmers

Should the trials be successful and Ninox obtain a wider operating license from CASA, Elrich is looking at offering the service to farmers, government agencies and utility companies for operations ranging from pest control to asset and stock management along with search and rescue roles for emergency services.

While the use of military drones is substantially more expensive than commercial drones with the costs currently around $3,000 per flight, Elrich believes the service is competitive with manned helicopter operations that many properties in rural Australia require.

Should the drones be successful on Australia’s sprawling farms, it’s going to be another example of how the current wave of technologies is further automating agriculture. There’s a lot more labour to be saved with these devices.

At present Elrich and Ninox see pest management as the initial application, but there’s many other ways farmers can be using robot technologies.

Apr 032015

While we focus on how technology is changing the workplace and displacing jobs, we often overlook how it affects animals as well.

A video posted by Irish farmer Paul Brennan shows how a drone can be used to herd sheep, putting the humble sheepdog out of work.

The possibilities in using drones on farms are endless, they free farmers up to do substantially more tasks and if they’re equipped with sensors to communicate with stock, crops or farm infrastructure they can be pulling in more information about the property.

For the poor sheepdog this isn’t the first time a farm animal has been displaced. Until the arrival of the steam engine and then farm tractor horses had been an essential part of agriculture for thousands of years.

But while news isn’t good for sheepdogs not all animals are intimidated by drones as one unfortunate owner found out when he decided to harass a mob a kangaroos.

Apr 022015
cheap robots cleaning computers

Transaction based businesses are in the firing line as robots and algorithms are taking over the tasks that are the mainstay of many service businesses.

In How To Know if a Robot Will Take Your Marketing Job, Gartner consultant Martin Kihn identifies two factors that indicate roles at risk of being overtaken by technology.

“The two dimensions relate to the things computers do best: (1) repetitive tasks, and (2) structured data,” states Kihn. “If you’re a knowledge worker, your biggest enemy is routine. To the extent your work is predictable, it’s codable . . . and you’re a target.”

Kihn describes a curve where repetitive, structured jobs are at risk of automation while at the other end are more abstract analytic roles which are relatively safe from the algorithms and robots.


While Kihn is focusing on marketing jobs, his message is clear for all occupations and businesses – if your company makes most of its revenue from low skill, easily automated tasks then it is ripe for being overtaken by algorithms or robotics.

Even for businesses that are higher up the value chain, there are roles that can be replaced within the enterprise; a good example are the mining companies replacing high paid drivers with automated pit trucks.

There are even many management jobs that may be affected as artificial intelligence advances. Approving spending or hiring requests for example can be largely dealt with by algorithms with only the rare exceptional case requiring a manager to intervene.

So the executive suite may well be just as vulnerable as the lower status roles in an organisation.

MIT professor Andrew McAfee who Kinh quotes has been clear that we’re on the cusp of massive change in the workplace as robots, algorithms and artificial intelligence progress. It may well be there are far more jobs and businesses at risk than we think.

Dec 232014

“It certainly looks like an engineer designed it,” was one of the first reactions to Google’s announcement of its first full prototype self driving car.

Certainly Google’s driverless vehicle looks odd, sort of like an overgrown carnival dodgem or an cartoon character police car.

One of the interesting aspects of the driverless car is that many features into today’s automobiles aren’t necessary if you don’t have a driver – the obvious aspects being that a steering wheel, handbrakes and dashboard displays become unnecessary.

Google have a video from earlier in the year showing the design and unveiling of the prototype. One of the fascinating aspects of the new device is how Google propose it can empower the sight impaired and disabled.

The prototypes are stripped down vehicles with only a top speed of 25mph, with only two seats and little, if any luggage space. As the Oatmeal reports, riding in them is a little boring after the first few minutes.

Looking at the Google vehicles it’s difficult not to think we could design something radically different if we moved away from our own prejudices of what a car should look like.

At the beginning of last century, motor cars looked similar to the horse carts that were the standard transportation of the day; it was only in the 1930s the automobile fully took the form we recognise today.

So it’s worth considering how we can optimise these vehicles to meet our needs and comfort rather than build them around the requirements of Twentieth Century technologies and usage.

Tomorrow’s driverless cars will probably look very different to today’s vehicles and similarly our communities will adapt to a very different way of travelling. We will almost certainly find our cities will be very different when the driverless car becomes the norm.

We need to think how to design them for that future, however far away it may be.