Did You See This?

The Robot Tamer

A woman’s relationship with a charming automated arm offers a happier view of our future with machines.

Internecine conflict between people and robots is to be expected from Hollywood, but anxiety over the future of artificial intelligence is a very real concern in sober academia as well. Nick Bostrom, director of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, has worried at book length over potential the existential threat posed by “superintelligence.” In The Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford explores a less eschatological peril: the unprecedented job automation will either force humanity to restructure the social contract around a universal basic income or suffer the consequences of mass unemployment. Some research  suggests as many as 47 percent of U.S. jobs could soon be automated.

There are those, however, who still keep faith in a better future between humans and our artificially intelligent kin. In the video above, the founder of Atoaton, Madeline Gannon, suggests a more symbiotic than antagonistic future. “Humans and robots are companion species on this planet,” she says. “We need each other.”

As part of a project sponsored by Autodesk, Gannon is seen working with an industrial robot called Mimus. More than capable of wielding an industrial-strength welder or other manufacturing line tools, Mimus instead uses visual sensors to follow and respond to human movements and gestures—Madeline isn’t so much programming this bot as taming it and training it. By putting humans in the center of robot workflow, she hopes they can work together organically as partners—that rather than a zero-sum game, human and machines can labor and think as a unit, so they are “exponentially better than what a human could do alone, or what a robot could do alone.”

If Gannon’s optimism is infectious, it’s due at least in part to Mimus’ playful charm. Whether interacting with adult engineers or museum-going children, the long robot arm flits and spins with apparent curiosity, a strange cross between a parrot and the Trimaxian Drone Ship from The Flight of The Navigator. Judging by the smiles on adults and children alike, it leaves you with the hopeful thought that perhaps the way robots will transform work is by making it more like play.