Wednesday interview: Graham Whitehead part 2: why Aibo's descendants will run our world (in a benign way)

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Having quizzed BT Exact futurologist Graham Whitehead earlier this week about BT’s new IP-based network and intelligent agents, the logical next discussion topic was robots. At least, it seemed that way at the time. Rather than spinning a yarn about bots running amok and taking over the world (with Will Smith unable to do a thing about it), Graham’s view is that robots will become part of humans’ lives in a more benign way.

“Who’s going to be pushing your wheelchair around the nursing home?” asks Whitehead. “It ain’t the little people, we’re not making enough of them! In Japan, the problem is even more serious, so they’re building machines that can relate to humans on an emotional level. If you bought an Aibo, you were a beta tester of Sony’s machine that emotionally relates to a human.”

Sadly, this doesn’t mean lots of robo-dogs wandering round old people’s homes in the year 2020 carrying cups of tea and custard creams. At least, I don’t think so. Instead, Whitehead’s argument is that the technology within Aibo will find its way into more useful bots in the years to come.

“They’ll be the hospital cleaners and porters, or the intelligent wheelchairs,” he says. Isn’t this bad news for all the people out there who make a living from those jobs now though? “I see people being elevated to the level of jobs where the human intellect is required,” he replies. “They won’t have to do the humdrum stuff.”

Won’t people be a bit scared of having robots around, even if they were sufficiently gadgety (and rich) to grow up with an Aibo? Whitehead thinks not, saying they’ll instead be an extension of their world.

“It would get up your nose if it’s a Dalek, but if it’s a friendly robot that says ‘Good morning John, here’s your pills…’ then it’s on a more emotional level. It’s not some nasty machine telling you what to do, it’s part of your life. People who are bed-ridden accept a human nurse who comes in and turns you over, but that could be better with a machine.”

He’s keen to stress, though, that this doesn’t mean taking all human nursing care out of the equation – there’ll be no fully robotic nursing homes in years to come. “All this technology is ‘as well as’, not ‘instead of’,” as he puts it.

Less potentially-controversial is the idea that in the future, humans will live a lot longer thanks to medical advances. So there’ll be a growing population of octogenarians (and older) who are relatively spry, but a bit… forgetful. BT’s been doing a trial in Liverpool installing various devices in sheltered accomodation for elderly people.

“It’s stuff like a simple little pad under the leg of the bed that can tell if somebody’s in the bed or not,” says Whitehead. “If they are at 3am, that’s good. If they’re still in bed at 11.30am, that’s not so good.” The theory is that some kind of signal could be triggered reminding the sleeper to get up, and if that doesn’t work, the alarm could be raised.

“It’s also about replacing the memory that isn’t there any more,” says Whitehead. “Putting a sensor on the cooker and toilet, so you can tell if it’s been flushed too many times. We all fall into a very strict profile of activity during the day, so our technology can report by exception to a call centre or contact centre.”

Of course, this could all tie back into BT’s new IP-based network (see part 1 of the interview for more info), allowing carers to video-call their clients to check they’re okay, or even tap into a live video feed, assuming the subject has agreed to it. Without wanting to go all ‘OLD PEOPLE FACE BIG BROTHER HELL!’ on him, doesn’t Whitehead think this could be seen as invasive?

“18 months after we started the Liverpool trial, we finished the project and went in to take all the technology out again,” he says. “One 84-year-old woman offered threatened the engineer with GBH with a walking frame if he took it away! They love it, because it’s adding value. It’s about introducing these things, and people accepting them.”

Stuart Dredge