Sunday 13 July 2014

Does technology mean we may be on our last legs?

Amazon testing drones for deliveries

Christmas is difficult for me. I'm allergic to 'O Holy Night', so I have to avoid public places in December. But I learnt yesterday that Amazon, in its tireless quest to free us from the curse of shopping, is testing delivery by unmanned drone quadricopter – a prospect so exciting and laden with implication that I nearly stayed in bed all day just thinking it through.

Not so long ago, we thought that the apogee of robotic development would be reached with the ability to mix a perfect Manhattan cocktail, but it turns out that the simple things are the hardest. The preferred showcase activity of Honda's Asimo ('The World's Most Advanced Humanoid Robot') is walking. Asimo can run, too, but Honda seem less keen on showing that off – perhaps they know we've seen I, Robot and have lost enthusiasm for hyperactive humanoids.

My phone comes with a little guy who can spell bougainvillea (as soon as it's an option, I'm changing him to a woman, because I'm not threatened by that kind of thing) so none of that intellectual stuff is exciting any more. Let me do the thinking; you robots get on with the housework.

And even though Asimo hasn't quite nailed walking ('The World's Most Constipated Humanoid Robot' would be cruel but fair), by the time the MkIII is released, it will only take a 10-year warranty and a competitive finance package to ensure a cost-benefit ratio that hasn't been bettered. It's not much of a stretch to imagine little groups of artfully customised Yummy Asimummies parking up the autonomous 4x4s and gathering at the south Dublin school gates of the near future.

The days of the walking postman may be numbered; I don't think mine has legs, anyway, though he definitely has tyre prints – and it's been a while since I saw the bottom half of a farmer.

So that's game over, then. I've been rapping on about walking-because-it's-good-for-you for quite a while now, but many still aren't convinced, and it looks as though they may have been right. I just got so wrapped up in my own shtick, I lost the big picture.

We are going to need a pretty good excuse for existing at all soon, especially now that we don't even have to sign cheques. Your identity – not the hip-hop one you've been trying to assert, but the actual one that means you exist – may soon consist of nothing more than a set of assigned rights and entitlements, offset against certain obligations, none of which necessitate your presence or interaction. Acknowledgment compulsory, being optional. That's what I call an existential crisis, but we can handle it.

After millennia of evolving in pursuit of improved functionality, we are now lagging badly on the downslope of technological progress. The future may look scary sometimes, but we'll adapt, because it's what we're good at. Walking; we used to do it but we just didn't want it badly enough. Like music hall and making our own entertainment, we thought it was important at the time, until something else came along.

Amazon doesn't expect to introduce its drone delivery service until at least 2015, and Asimo doesn't yet have a confirmed launch date. So hold on to the legs for the moment; it doesn't always pay to be an early adopter. And use them every now and then – you never know.

Conor O'Hagan is editor of the bi-monthly Walking World Ireland magazine.

Irish Independent

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