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The future is now

This week I saw irrefutable proof that the future we’ve been waiting for is already here. It has been sneaking up on us for the past ten years. But few things are as telling of a futuristic presence, that talking robots and cars that drive themselves. In fact, I grew up day-dreaming about one day owning a car that could do all the wonderful things that Michael Knight’s black Trans-Am could do. Besides being able to speak intelligently, the most amazing thing about KITT was that he could drive himself. A lot of the show’s humour rested in this piece of futuristic high tech fantasy. And here we are! More than 30 years later when a basic model Tesla would put KITT to shame.

Michael Knight’s car was an imagination of how Artificial Intelligence (AI) would one day work. But if you look at some of those old shows today, you may just be able to spot a hidden hand on the steering wheel, or a body hiding away in the driver’s seat. It was the only way they were able to make KITT autonomous. These days, just about every car manufacturer is working on a self-driving car, but of course Tesla is THE most popular of the lot. While you can’t get them here in SA yet, several models are able to at least park themselves, with a little bit of help. I am excited about autonomous cars because of what they will mean for those of us commuting on a daily basis.

You’ll be able to put all that time in traffic to productive use. You could either get some work done, take a nap, or enjoy a movie. Your car would be able to do all the running around for you, like collecting the kids from school, relatives from the airport or groceries from the shop, freeing up even more time. But THE most exciting thing is when ALL cars on our roads are eventually driven by smart AI computers that are able to communicate with each other. That will mean no more accidents or traffic jams … in theory anyway. And that’s all because AI can compute millions of bits of information all at once and a whole lot quicker than we can, which means your car will be able to avoid potential problems before, or while they happen.

While growing up, I also spent a lot of my time fantasising about one day living in a world, where Buck Rogers is a reality. He was that ill-fated astronaut, who – according to the 80’s TV show intro – was lost in space in 1985 and was found and re-animated in the 25th century. You must remember the funny little robot named Twiki that was his side-kick. Well, Twiki is only fractionally more advanced than the robot I met recently – light years ahead of the 25th century schedule set by Buck Rogers. Made in Japan, Pepper is SA’s first humanoid robot and is already able to have a more intelligent conversation that Twiki could.

Robots and AI are topics that are dividing many people, largely because of what we have seen the technology do in movies. So there’s a real fear that together, they will be able to destroy the human race, once they achieve consciousness. This is being given even more impetus, now that developers are working on algorithms that will essentially give robots artificial emotional intelligence. But proponents of the technology believe that robots will eventually serve a valuable role in society – helping us live even better lives with a lot more free time, to pay attention to vocational betterment. There most obvious application right now, is companionship, especially for elderly people, of which there are many in Japan.

Pepper’s importer/owner Scott Giles tells me that this is exactly the role that Pepper is playing in Japan at the moment. Pepper isn’t able to walk like a human (the way Twiki did), but once she is able to clearly identify your voice, she is able to hold an engaging conversation. Pepper can be programmed over WiFi, but Scott says they are planning to also hook her up to iOT devices. This means that soon Pepper will be able to communicate with other smart devices, like your fridge so she can let you know what you’re running short of. She’ll also be able to go online and find information to share with you when you have a question. Add more advanced AI into the mix and a future Pepper will be able to give you smart, intelligent and even analytical responses to deep questions.

This truly is the beginning what I have previously called the “Robot Revolution” – a time when every household will have its own robot, taking care of everything from security, to babysitting, cooking and entertainment. Robots will tuck your kids in with multi-media bedtime stories, keep your home clean, remind you of important appointments and even monitor your wellbeing. This is so much more than Twiki’s creators could ever have imagined.

Enjoy the interview above with Pepper’s owner Scott Giles and the video interview with Pepper herself. Pepper takes a little while to respond to my questions, because it takes a while for her AI to identify and store my voice. So be a little patient with her. She is very cute though.


Bobby Brown – Smile Breakfast Anchor, Weekdays 6am-9am