John Harris

Journalist & Author

Robots could solve the social care crisis – but at what price? | John Harris

It’s the next wave of automation beyond retail and financial services. Yet can artificial intelligence ever replicate altruism and empathy?

Pepper is a 4ft tall approximation of a human being developed in France, and now manufactured and marketed by the Japanese-owned corporate giant SoftBank Robotics. If you went to the recent Robots exhibitions at London’s Science Museum or the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, you will be aware of what he (Pepper has been given a male pronoun, for some reason) can do.

Using a screen on his chest, he tells interactive stories, approximates the basics of conversation, and performs everyday gestures – all the while, according to his creators, “recognising the principal human emotions and adapting his behaviour to the mood of his interlocutor”. I have met Pepper on three occasions: the fact that my two children were so entranced spoke volumes not just about his capabilities, but the easy charm his inventors have wired into him.

Related: Carers don’t need to be paid compliments – they just need to be paid | Frances Ryan

Artificial Intelligence has various definitions, but in general it means a program that uses data to build a model of some aspect of the world. This model is then used to make informed decisions and predictions about future events. The technology is used widely, to provide speech and face recognition, language translation, and personal recommendations on music, film and shopping sites. In the future, it could deliver driverless cars, smart personal assistants, and intelligent energy grids. AI has the potential to make organisations more effective and efficient, but the technology raises serious issues of ethics, governance, privacy and law.

Related: In a world of digital nomads, we will all be made homeless | John Harris

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