Can a Robot Win the Newbery?

15 Robot Newbery

I know we’re just getting adjusted to social media, big data and predictive modeling, but it’s robots I think that (who?) we need to watch out for. Like it or not, the movie “Her,” which was not a personal favorite, did pose the question of just how wily those robots can be in making us think we could have a meaningful relationship. But as science fiction has often warned, they don’t care and might well leave us in the end. In fact, it looks downright scary, and many are predicting vast changes in our work and lives going forward.

Robots started out alright, just offering to vacuum our houses, clean the pool, scoop the litter, and turn on lights to deter burglars. But now they’ve gotten so personal – telling us when to exercise, if we’ve had too much chocolate, and insisting there’s one right way to cook broccoli.

Friends have said, “Let them do the rote tasks, help keep us healthy, crunch data to ensure we only hear about the products we want.” A recent email thread even suggested we might eventually do away with jobs in sales, marketing, and those held by overpaid CEOs – and advance to a time where we can focus on technology, science, art and creative fields that “need the human touch.”

What? Marketing not creative??!! Well, we’ll save that for another time…. But, in fact the question we increasingly face in light of developments in AI, is, what is uniquely human and what is meaningful in our business and personal interactions – and what can robots really be taught to do?

Right now, we’re witnessing the rise of robot journalism and even the beginnings of robots doing art. In March, Associated Press announced robots will be covering college sports, the Los Angeles Times is using robots to cover some news, and others are finding robots perfectly suited for disaster coverage. The company Narrative Science has developed a program to facilitate all this and which takes statistics and data from sports, finance and other areas and turns it into articles. In fact, the founders have been predicting it won’t be long before a robot wins the Pulitzer. Bryan Clark, gave an excellent overview of robots covering news on the tech site, MakeUseOf, entitled, Meet the Robot Who’s Trying to Take My Job.

Robotic art’s not quite so far along, but experiments are well underway – and some that are doing art might surprise you. iCub, one of the most advanced humanoids can dance and make music, and learns by interacting with the world the way a toddler would. Paul-IX, according to the Huffington Post, is “an automated sketch-bot who can outline a still life better than your high school art teacher,” and The Painting Fool is a robot that/whose work has been exhibited in galleries.

So how far are we, and will AI go in making robots to replicate and even improve on the things we do? Things are changing fast, and we don’t know what will be possible, but perhaps the lesson for all of us in art and in marketing is to think about our human connections and, possibly, not be so quick to want to automate and abbreviate everything we do.

But we should realize we’ve always had predictive systems in place to project successful outcomes. Bryan Clark sums it up saying, “the robot is more than capable of telling us who won as well as identifying key facts, but “they aren’t able to recognize the subtle nuances that really tell the story. The bad jump on a fly ball that led to a double, the bunt single that a replay showed to be a foul ball – these are all details that a human beat reporter relies on to deliver a compelling story. These nuances are why sports fans watch games, but they’re largely qualitative and beyond the scope of modern machine learning.”

Ken Goldberg, Professor of Industrial Engineering and Operations at the University of California, Berkeley, where he directs a lab on automation sciences, concurs in a recent article for Nautilus, “Robots Can’t Dance.” Goldberg says working with robots has taught him “to have a huge appreciation for the nuances of human behavior and the inconsistencies of humans.” It’s the “ability to have an emotional response, to be compelling, to be able to pick up subtle emotional signals, these are all the things that we haven’t made any progress on with robots.”

Will he and others do so going forward? We don’t know, but for now, it’s the ability to use all those skills in to create nuanced, multifaceted stories, whether in writing, art, or in marketing, that will as it always has been able to — touch others in a meaningful way.

And, if that doesn’t work – I’m for waiting for a good rainy day and pushing those smug robots right outside to rust!


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