By Nick Place

A robot made me a coffee earlier this week. A couple of mechanical arms whirred, twisted and got busy around an adapted expresso machine. One measured out a double shot, the other chose a cup, warmed milk and then the first arm went back to exactly measure the amount of coffee all over again.

The finished product: looks and tastes just like a human-made coffee.             Pic: Nicko

It took longer than a busy Saturday morning in some regular cafes in my ‘hood but I finally saw my name appear on a screen above a dispenser window as the right-hand robot arm carefully placed my finished coffee on a shelf.

It even tasted good – and my suburb may be the coffee-snob capital of the world, so that’s no small praise.

Barista-bot (nickname: Rocky) is the invention of Once Alike and you can read more about it here, in an excellent article on Broadsheet, but I had a chat with Liam, the robot’s programmer and he told me that the current robot making slow (and free!) coffees in a Collingwood backstreet is the second-generation model. The company was formed in 2016 but this barista-bot was built in the second half of last year. Updates are downloaded pretty much every day but a whole new next-generation barista will probably be on its way sooner rather than later; faster, smarter, better.

Barista-bot at work, in Collingwood, Victoria.

The plan is probably not to make the clichéd bearded, tattooed barista go the way of the dinosaurs or the telex machine, but to instead offer a really great, automated coffee for large corporate staff rooms and the like. Liam said the company hoped to go beyond being a novelty, to being seen as a truly viable source of Australian-standard expressos, lattes and the like. It’s got a way to go but there it is.

Riding back to my office on my non-electric bike, I listened to an album ‘Hello World’ by SKYGGE. It might be the first genuinely engaging musical album composed and created entirely by artificial intelligence.

According to the BBC, a French songwriter, Benoît Carré, who has worked with some of the French greats, like the recently departed Johnny Halliday, pushed the buttons on a program called Flow Machines, created at Sony’s Computer Science Laboratories in Paris, and ‘Hello World’ is the result. It’s pretty trippy. A wild mix of styles and beats, but the truth is if you’d played it to me in a car, saying, ‘What do you think of this album?’, I almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to pick that it was created by a robot.

If you’re not unnerved yet, consider that Google also has an AI program that is starting to prove that it can genuinely problem solve, adapt and use new intelligence at a rate that humans and even elite software can’t match.

DeepMind is the name of Google’s ‘AlphaGo Zero’ artificial intelligence program and it has taught itself to play Space Invaders and Pong, to beat a bunch of human champions at the game ‘Go’ and now has spanked the previously unsurpassed chess-playing software, Stockfish 8. And get this: DeepMind was only introduced to the concept of chess a few hours before. It taught itself the game and then beat or drew with Stockfish 8 in 100 straight games.

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A robot at CES, possibly moments before tearing this guy’s head off. Pic: Wired

What does this all mean for us, GiantsAmongMen in the second half of our careers and, well hell, our lives? Maybe not a lot. I mean, the laundry-folding robot or the vacuuming robots, shown at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas along with so many other robot prototypes, could be handy, I suppose,

But the true AI revolution that means this site will be written and put together by an intuitive, free-thinking artificially intelligent machine that can discern topics, respond to feedback, choose the right images, and feel what’s emotionally and genuinely important to a person of our age group?

That feels a while away to me. (Unless I am that, right now! What a twist!)

But the other thing: I reckon people still like hanging out with people. It’s why we go to cinemas or watch sport live, with others. It’s why we enjoy bars and restaurants. It’s why so many robots are designed to be kind of human, or at least to have ‘character’, be ‘cute’, to give us human elements we can connect with – unlike the barista-bot which remains functional but unattractive mechanical arms coldly swinging in space.

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A robot we’re all more familiar with. In a galaxy far far away.

Wired magazine had a story recently about a middle-aged Houston guy who predicted the enormous damage of Hurricane Harvey, but that wasn’t the interesting part of the story for me. What I latched onto was the fact that this guy has a blog, Space City Weather, and it’s really popular. It’s not America’s version of the Bureau of Meteorology and it’s not entirely auto-generated forecasts. It’s one guy, who happens to be a trained meteorologist but only uses that as a hobby, who did a human reading of the official weather data and wrote about it. As Harvey loomed, people asked him if certain planes were likely to be delayed, should they cancel a party in this suburb, and so on.

Human connection: excuse me, mate, can I ask you something?

And as the Wired piece says beautifully towards the end, he, unlike a computer, was able to shrug and say: I’m not sure, and to comfort his readers as things got bad.

In the same vein, it’s worth revisiting ‘Hello World’, that SKYGGE robot-created music. The co-creator/human Carré let the BBC in on a secret: that the album’s songs couldn’t actually be finished without a human, to add that final touch of emotion, and shape. But it wasn’t reported whether he added the word ‘yet’ (or more likely, ‘encore’, given he’s French.) You do wonder how long that will remain the case.

As with so much of today’s world, which can seem faster and wilder and harder to keep up with, there are elements to worry about in all this and many parts to greet with excitement. To be honest, I don’t truly care that artificial intelligence can write music, play games or make coffees. I’m going to continue to make a choice to do all those things with fellow humans.

But the other AI, the forms that could profoundly change work, the way we live, maybe save the climate, maybe create food, maybe save or kill the world? The robots that might find a solution for Cape Town’s current very real danger of completely running out of water within a month or so?

I’ve pretty much lost faith in politicians to sort that shit out, so maybe robots are our only hope. I’m watching that stuff closely.

For more from the Consumer Electronics Show, click here.
…or Google it. It’s everywhere in the US media!