These Canadians are helping the world become replicant ready: Don Pittis

Sophisticated Blade Runner-style replicants are unlikely by 2049, but two Canadian women say the world must start now to adjust to robots in our daily lives.

Blade Runner-style androids are many decades away, but it's time to prepare to welcome them

The blockbuster movie Blade Runner 2049 continues the story of the conflict between humans and their artificial replacements. In the real world, Canadians are already working on the problem. (Warner Brothers)

Sorry, science fiction fans. The replicants that do the dirty work in the new Blade Runner movie are not likely to be ready by 2049.

But two Canadian women are world leaders in laying the groundwork.

"One thing that a lot of people don't realize is that Canada is at the forefront of AI ethics and roboethics," says AJung Moon, CEO of Generation R, a startup company that helps organizations prepare for the robot invasion.

Comfort level

Representing the Open Roboethics Institute (ORI), Moon addressed the United Nations in 2015, helping to develop the global discussion on ethical issues that include the proper limits of robot autonomy.

"What decisions are we comfortable delegating to robots?" Moon asked the Geneva gathering.
AJung Moon addresses the United Nations in Geneva on the subject of roboethics, a field where Canada is a world leader. (Open Roboethics Institute)

Aptly located in Vancouver, a world capital of science fiction entertainment production, ORI is an outgrowth of the University of British Columbia's specialization in human robot interaction. In such a new field, the institute is considered venerable.

"ORI has been around for five years and not a lot of institutes that study this topic can say the same thing," says Moon.

In a world where robotics and artificial intelligence are sweeping into every part of the production chain, Generation R may have found a niche.

The company recently completed a study for Technical Safety BC, a self-funding organization charged with licensing and inspecting the safety of technical installations in the province.

Artificial intelligence safety

The technical authority recently began incorporating machine learning — the basis for modern artificial intelligence — into its system for deciding where to get the best bang for its buck in the use of its limited inspection staff. 

The job of Generation R was to spot where the new AI system was likely to encounter problems with the human-centred task.

Workers at Technical Safety BC were worried that the new automated prediction algorithm would create ethical problems, missing or misjudging risks or stealing jobs rather than helping workers to do their jobs better.

Generation R was reassuring and suggested a series of corrective measures, but that doesn't mean robots won't begin doing jobs that people are doing now.
In a Media Markt store In Switzerland last week, customers appeared disconcerted by a robot named Paul that can help find products on the shelves. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

In fact, experts, say automation is best when it is stealing jobs in what they call the three Ds, those that are dull, dirty or dangerous. But whatever they do, automated systems, just like replicants, have to get along with people.

Friendly robots

"We're about friendly robots," says UBC's Elizabeth Croft, a mechanical engineering prof and director of the world-leading Collaborative Advanced Robotics and Intelligent Systems Lab (CARIS).

According to Croft, the idea that a higher minimum wage will take away dull and repetitive jobs is almost beside the point. The replacement of low-wage jobs is inevitable. The trick is to make people happy about it.

"To maintain our standard of living we actually have to embrace this kind of technology," says Croft.
A man looks at models of android robots, game characters from Detroit: Become Human at Tokyo Game Show 2017. But real replicant-style androids are far in the future. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

The way to do that is to be sure there are still plenty of good quality, complex and interesting jobs for human labour that, so far at least, only humans can do. That seems to be working out.

"Where robots are good is reliability, repeatability, the heavy lifting, able to untiringly do dumb tasks — pick-and-place pick-and-place, they can do that over and over again," says Croft. 

"You want to focus your labour to those high-value activities where there needs to be logic under uncertainty." 

Moving people into those higher-value, higher-wage jobs is the only way to increase Canadian productivity, leaving the bad jobs for the computers and robots.

"To be able to do that effectively there is a point where people and robots have to come together to really obtain that full value of that transition," says Croft.

Essentially, the robots have to be constructed and used in a way that makes people happy and comfortable.

And unlike in the world of Blade Runner 2049, we don't have to worry about how the robots feel about it — so far.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

More analysis from Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.


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