With the rise of consumer tech and the relentless pursuit to make our experiences handheld or now wearable, sometimes I wonder if we’ve lost some of our ability to get excited or amazed by technology.
I think this is particularly relevant to me because in my line of work I’m either advising on, writing about or researching workplace technology. You end up having a slightly different relationship with it. It also may be that in making every experience technology small it just doesn’t touch all our senses or immerse us in a powerful experience.
There’s also no longer much of a sense of mystery about technology implementation and the people who build it. As with the Wizard of Oz, the curtain behind the little booth has been opened to reveal a geeky looking developer in a Foo Fighters t-shirt that could really do with a bit of a wash.
The fascination of robots
However the current wave of writing and interest in robots seems counter to this There’s a new fear about the effects of robots and mass automation on jobs and economies, and more than a whiff of science fiction about the evolution of the potential crossover between man and machine. Artificial intelligence, HAL and all that.
To me this ever-so-slight edge of panic has its roots in a renewed fascination with technology very different from some of the “been there, done that” haze around mobile. (Not to say that we haven’t got much further to go in the mobile space, because we have).
I recall two recent-ish experiences with robots which I found both very interesting and intriguing.
Robots and chocolate
Last Summer we took our kids to Cadbury World which is at Bourneville, the site of the Cadbury’s factory in Birmingham, UK. OK, it’s mainly aimed at children, but you do get a sneaky glimpse into the some of the factory automation. And I have to say it was mesmerizing.
My son and I watched a mechanical robotic arm stack boxes of Wispa chocolate bars which had rolled down various conveyor belts across a huge room. It even gently added some paper to separate out each layer of boxes in the stack. Once the pile was high enough, an automated trolley rolled into view and carted them off to be distributed. Perhaps I had already had too much chocolate to eat, but I found it quite exhilarating.
Robot test drive
I got a similar sense when I test drove a Telepresence robot from Anybots in preparation for an item on Digital Workplace 24. These are basically screens equipped with a webcam wheels that can be remotely controlled. It was incredible to feel that I could control something that moved through a dimly lit room in Southern California just with the arrows on my laptop keyboard while I was based in London, UK.
The grainy quality of the images, the whirring of its wheels and the robot catching sight of itself in the mirror (caught in the screen grab at the top of this post) made it feel quite unsettling, but also enthralling.
The perfection of robots?
One thing I notice about these experiences is I think my fascination with automation and things that move. When I was growing up in the seventies I remember I always liked it when they visited a factory on Play School when going through the round window. (That’s a kids TV programme by the way).
I wonder if it is because my background is one of a knowledge worker. We’re used to digital systems which are imperfect, and rely on interaction from humans, or are designed for collaboration. But robots are different. There’s something very satisfying about the movement of the mechanical arms, and their ability to do something heavy (lift boxes) or light (layer paper). The ability to switch efficiently and effortlessly between fast movement and gentle movement is amazing.
The robots are working perfectly as they should, and have the desired outcome which was based on the original design. This is something you can’t often say about knowledge-based systems.
It is this potential perfection which is at terms both exciting but also threatening. I wonder what the future holds?