What Just Happened!? Artificial Intelligence goes to Westminster
19 October 2018
By the Withpr Content Team
This week something fairly strange took place in Westminster: a robot addressed MPs of the Education Select Committee at Parliament. The 3ft tall android, named Pepper – who resides at the University of Middlesex – told MPs about her work with humans, and the place of AI in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. So wait a minute – what just happened?
This was no simple gimmick to create media fodder, in contrast to the otherwise “heavy” grillings that often take place among Select Committees at Westminster. Pepper’s visit was something altogether different, and in itself highly significant. The testimony marked an understanding between MPs and researchers of the applications of AI – not just for commercial purposes, but for social care and education.
Pepper is part of an international research project called CARESSES, within the Horizon 2020 programme. The project’s goal is to design androids that can work with the elderly, providing essential support to improve quality of life in later years. This includes household interactions such as discussing what to make for dinner, reminding people to take medication and encouraging them to keep regular contact with family. Pepper also works with students at Middlesex to promote STEM learning, robotics and AI.
The questions to the robot were of course pre-prepared, and Pepper’s responses were pre-programmed. The chair of the committee Rob Halfon asked the android to introduce herself and talk about her role at Middlesex. MP James Frith also invited her to comment on the role of humans during the present age of rapid technological advancement. To everyone’s relief, Pepper said that society would always need the “soft skills that are unique to humans”.
The committee hearing were receptive to the technology offering, as the robot’s performance was met with a round of applause. This is where the significance of the event lies: it was a recognition that – despite the frequent tabloid media alerts of an AI-driven apocalypse – new technologies can be part of solving the unique problems faced by today’s society. Care for the elderly represents the more reassuring side of AI. The Select Committee recognised this, and welcomed the truly “human” application of androids in improving lives. Only time will tell if androids in Westminster will become a regular thing…