Drones in Singapore. Drones everywhere! Are Drones Good for us?

Drones in Singapore. Drones everywhere! Are Drones Good for us?

Judging by the number of drones/robots either on sale on e-bay and colluding at entertainment venues: I’m guessing that the big debate regarding the use of drones was overwhelmingly in favour of its use.

Typically, drones are associated with flying robots, but I prefer to use the term more inclusively. After all, autonomous drones *can* and *do* be operated quite independently of an operator and therefore qualify to be called robots, working machines, etc…

Fully autonomous drones, like those designed and manufactured by Singapore-based Infinium Robotics, have found their way into restaurants (Infinium Serve), store-inventory (Infinium Scan) and aerial dancing (Infinium Waders, capable of intricate ‘dance’ moves in the sky!). In classrooms, friendly robots Pepper and NAO are helping teachers in classrooms with reinforced learning.

– LET WE SERVE YOU –

One of these drones, the Infinium Serve, is a fully-autonomous indoor drone built with safety in mind. Its propeller blades are enclosed in a wire gate (to prevent it from hitting diners!), curved body (edge contact on persons = also not very nice) and relatively quiet (exposure to about 80db of noise for more than eight hours is enough to damage ears). Yes, drones in Singapore and, more specifically, in the services industry is becoming real.

After scanning through a bunch of low-quality vids on YouTube (like the self-asserting biological drone I am), I managed to find a demonstration of this drone at a nice fancy restaurant:

Flying to and fro the kitchen and diner’s tables without any human intervention, these drones do the heavy lifting that would usually leave a human waiter/waitress deadbeat at the end of day. However, lacking manipulators…uh, HANDS, the drones still need the human touch of transferring the dishes over onto diner’s tables.

Drones/robots have also found themselves doing jobs that are typically hazardous to human health, such as nuclear radiation clean-up, earthquake rescue (typically characterized by Japanese robots that are equipped with ultrasound sensors to locate victims underneath rubble and rescue them with its powerful actuator arms), window cleaning, bomb disposal and, of course, military conflict resolution.

There certainly are concerns surrounding the use of drones in domestic everyday life and, far more controversially, on the battlefield, history proves once again that utility (and business opportunities) trumps other considerations. Don’t get me wrong, I like drones doing my work for me, but bear with me on this…

drones earthquake rescue 1

Earthquake rescue robot in a training simulation. Picture courtesy of Popular Science, “Meet Japan’s Earthquake Search-And-Rescue Robots”

– YOU ARE BECOMING HYSTERICAL-

The idea of killer androids rampaging about in an isolated space station and breaking the necks of every human in sight is a common trope of dystopian science fiction. While we can be glad that modern hunter-killer drones aren’t the type of robots/androids that are smart (but not smart enough to good decisions), it is still a worrying trend.

Coming back to reality, policy makers and the public are worried that the ever-growing use and reliance of drones on the battlefield, while saving the lives of countless soldiers while (hopefully) discouraging an enemy to fight (which saves lives on that side as well), the use of drones may lower the threshold needed for belligerent parties to start wars (at least, limited wars where nuclear weapons aren’t involved).

drones mq-9 reaper 1

United States Air Force MQ-9 Reaper hunter-killer drone. Nice pal if on your side. Blood-letting demon from hell if otherwise. Picture courtesy of the United States Air Force.

Since soldiers are made up of people and people don’t want to die unnecessarily, this fear of death effectively serves as a negative feedback loop, if you will, that prevents nations from going to war so readily. However, drones are *usually* programmed with little sense of self-preservation in mind, and are thus excluded from such control.

This means that, even in the case where a (human) democratic process might go overwhelmingly against war – there’s nothing stopping a military equipped with robotic fiends to start one, since they don’t need humans to fill the traditional role of hunter-killer. Yes, it can be argued that drones are built using tax-payers’ money and thus is still necessary to get their consent for that, but I’m sure there are easier ways to get around that than convincing someone to die in the line of fire for any cause.

Drones could also be a threat to personal privacy. Introducing the Nano UAV Black Hornet, the smallest drone, a.k.a. spycam, in the world (at least that’s their claim!). Measuring only 10 cm long and 2.5 cm wide and weighing only 16 grammes (about 3 sheets of paper). My verdict: for police surveillance – O-K; as an off-the-shelf spying tool for every Tom, Dick and Harry on the street? Nuh-uh.

– WE RENDER YOU OBSOLETE –

Or not. Regardless, the more present concern is more domestic in nature: drones and robots taking over people’s jobs might seem like a good idea for companies looking to save lots of $$$ in the long run while avoiding employee problems, other parties involved are not looking at the issue with the same perky outlook.

Optimists argue that drones and robots will free us (humans, of course) of having to perform tedious and repetitive jobs, and letting us focus our efforts on more creative innovations. Early humans learnt agriculture, which allowed them to support larger populations – and even freeing up a few select individuals to create the myths and artwork that we admire today. The industrial revolution unbound farmers from the earth, letting them channel their efforts elsewhere – like scientific innovation and the arts. And more recently, robots in manufacturing has cut down on the number of manual workers to keep factories running at peak efficiency.

However, at every big milestone of mankind’s journey I suspect has claimed its fair share of victims. While it’s all nice and fuzzy for the early adopters – old timers who are too old to learn new skills will fall behind and be forgotten. Also, Generation Y (those born in the early 1980’s and early 2000), whose economic prospects are characterized by over-competition and high levels of youth unemployment. In 2012, youth unemployment rate in Singapore was 6.7% (half of the global average of 12.6%. Low, but I have my thoughts of that which I won’t discuss here).

Now bring on the drones in Singapore. I’m curious as to the number of youths, who already had to go through years of school and university to land a low-skill job, now lose it to their robotic counterparts.

And judging by how the public had reacted to the recently rejected referendum on Basic Income in Switzerland,(showing how the only country in the world to even consider such a thing), it’s doubtful that a fair redistribution of income would happen if robots started replacing jobs. Yay, human greed.

Justine Foong

Likes lone walks in the park. Doesn't think that waiting an hour in a line for food is worth any recommendation. Believes that a major breakthrough in Engineered Negligible Senescence will come within this lifetime.