Sinead Ryan: 'Like it or not, the robots will soon take over'
I was speaking to someone recently who took possession of an Alexa over Christmas. It's taken a little longer than usual for her to acquire an ear for his Kerry accent, but she's now busily turning on and off lights, music and, for all I know, putting the kettle on and telling him to put the bins out on Tuesdays.
I wouldn't have one in the house if you paid me. The whole notion is terrifying. I'm not altogether certain my mobile phone isn't spying on me already, so I'd be pretty suspicious of a device in the living room following my every movement.
The theme for this year's World Economic Forum in Davos is the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution'. It's all about getting ready for the time when robots take over all our jobs, but they mean it in a good way. While it may be an attractive proposition for say, the Dáil, sparing us the noisy windbag pontifications from various sides of the house in favour of efficiently and quietly passing legislation, it seems most of the call centres I end up on hold to are already robotic in their unfriendliness, so it mightn't be a bad thing when they take over.
One area already suffering from a lack of trained personnel is elder care. Horrendously low paid, hard work yet with a strict requirement for qualifications and oversight, means we increasingly end up out-sourcing these jobs to foreigners, most of them excellent it has to be said. But could robots have a role also?
One country which is ageing faster than most is Japan. In 1990, it had a ratio of 5.8 under 65s for every person over 65. Today it's 2.1, and by 2050 it is projected to be an unsustainable 1.4, according to the IMF, which has warned the Japanese government to urgently consider solutions to the problem.
It isn't helped by that country's in-built aversion to foreigners, to the extent that the State is reluctant to grant visas to any immigrant without a full command of the Japanese language, which isn't exactly the easiest to pick up. Just 18 nursing care work visas were granted in 2017, in a population of 126 million.
But they are good at building robots. And since there aren't enough Japanese prepared to do elder care work, many nursing homes now employ androids which are proving popular - with scripted dialogues for interaction, full-size humanoids leading groups in simple exercises, and robotic animals like dogs and seals covered in 'fur' for petting, who will roll over and emit recorded sounds which those with dementia, for instance, can find comforting.
There are days we could all do with less interaction with real people, but I'm not sure it'll catch on.
...but even they won't be immune from sack
Elsewhere in the land of the rising sun, the Henn Na hotel, in its attempt to become the most high-tech hostelry in the world, brought in 243 robots to run everything from check-in to guest entertainment services. Curiously, it decided to feature them with dinosaur heads which may have put a few people off - who wants a T-Rex taking your credit card details? The hotel promised the bots would "warm your heart".
In any event, it has now sacked (dismantled?) the lot after finding them hugely incompetent and creating more work for their human counterparts than even the laziest co-worker. Apparently, among the unexpected outcomes were robots spontaneously joining in guests' private conversations (I know people who do this too), robotic concierges unable to answer the simplest questions (ditto), and androids repeatedly waking snoring guests up asking them to repeat what they were saying. No chance of them sorting out the backstop, so.