Oliver Lemon: Don’t worry about robots – the future will still be human

Most 'robots' are not actually made to look quite so human as Fred, a Mesmer robot (Picture: Matt Cardy/Getty)
Most 'robots' are not actually made to look quite so human as Fred, a Mesmer robot (Picture: Matt Cardy/Getty)
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For many people, talk of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics can be slightly unsettling and, in the workplace, there can be concerns about the possible impact of technology on jobs.

But, in reality, AI has the potential to enhance and improve our everyday lives and our jobs. The type of research and applications I’m involved in – with my colleagues at Heriot-Watt University, counterparts in industry, and peers across the world – is designed to support human intelligence.

We believe that AI should be thought of as automating some of the more repetitive, annoying tasks most of us face at times in our jobs. Technology can remove the drudgery and free up people’s time to concentrate on more difficult or complex problems that require human intelligence, or give you space to be more creative.

Automation has always happened; AI is just a different type of automation. The important point is that we all need to be aware of it and ready for the next wave. AI is not suddenly going to replace a large percentage of the workforce. Instead, I believe it’s going to support people in the work they already do to make certain tasks faster and easier.

That’s why events such as the Centre for Work Based Learning’s symposium in November, #AHumanFuture, are vital to help employers and employees understand how AI can work with them and for them, rather than something to be wary of. The symposium recognises that the world of work is changing, partly due to AI, and new skills and knowledge are required.

There are many ways that AI can support on-the-job training and I’m involved in work that can be adapted and used effectively by employers and employees. My focus is on conversation to aid human-robot interaction and the use of natural language. At Heriot Watt, we’re working hard on building conversational agents that people can talk to in normal everyday language and interact with for a variety of purposes, for example to learn a range of new skills.

One of our projects in the area of technology-enhanced learning (TEL) involved the creation of virtual characters that people could speak to and interact with using natural language. One example is a language-teaching system where people can test out their ability to do a certain task, such as going into a shop. Instead of interacting with a human tutor, the individual would talk to the graphical character, almost like in a video game.

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Such virtual characters can be used to educate people in various ways, perhaps to train customer service employees in a contact centre. This type of simulated learning can happen anywhere and at any time – one of the big advantages of TEL.

Another TEL initiative has been designed to help autistic children by developing social interaction skills that could be transferred from the virtual to the real world. The ECHOES project created a virtual character exploring such issues as shared attention and eye gaze to encourage a group of children to play more and experiment with new things. The technology developed for that project is now being worked on by the Institute of Education in London.

Recently, we’ve been involved in the Amazon Alexa challenge with our system, Alana, which is designed as an entertaining and engaging experience for chatting about a whole range of topics. Alana is an advanced form of AI software that can understand and respond to human conversation, and her understanding of language is still developing. Its potential is clearly being recognised as Alana has reached the final of this year’s international Amazon Alexa Prize, a $3.5m university challenge to advance human-computer interaction.

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At the moment, our Alana system is deployed in the real world and can be used by everyone in North America who has an Amazon Echo. It’s easy to see how Alana can be expanded or modified for educational purposes. Through conversations with Alana, I’ve actually discovered things I didn’t know and you may be pleasantly surprised by her knowledge. For example, people can browse Wikipedia by chatting to Alana. We’re hoping to spin-out a company using our Alana technology as an AI engine which could then be used for many different applications, including TEL.

In the workplace, Alana could give conversational access to information relevant to certain organisations through a set of frequently asked questions that can be easily indexed. It could also be used to build task-related dialogues to allow certain aspects of workflow to be done using conversation. In particular, it could be good for automating very repetitive tasks, giving employees time to deal with more complex situations.

People interested in Alana’s progress on Twitter can follow it at the @alanathebot account. Overall, our research is building the kind of conversational experiences that would be ideal for work-place learning by essentially allowing people to simulate particular problems and issues and build systems to respond to them.

Conversational AI can save time and resources by allowing training to happen at any location without having to set up physical meetings to bring groups of people together. People can instead interact with AI through their laptops or phones which saves a lot of admin time, and they can train over and over again without others having to be involved.

To give an example of conversational AI being used by industry, Heriot-Watt has a big, new project called ORCA – the Offshore Robotics Centre for Certification of Assets – which brings together five academic institutions and more 30 industrial and innovation partners. Part of that project sees conversational systems interacting with robots that inspect oil rigs and pipelines. This allows people to better control the robots and understand more rapidly what the robot is sensing and seeing.

I hope hearing about our work will help people to understand how new technologies can be used in the workplace to improve everyone’s day-to-day experiences and support training,

Skills 4.0: Work-based Learning For #AHumanFuture is the theme for this year’s Centre for Work Based Learning in Glasgow on 6 November. Oliver Lemon is a professor in Heriot-Watt University’s computer science department