Photo by Catherine Goce

By: Evonne Syed

The topic of integrating artificial intelligence and robots into the workforce rouses the concern of anyone wishing to enter the job market, and the same goes for postsecondary students.

Fortunately, the future is optimistic for students as automation is not expected to prevent graduates from attaining their career goals.

In fact, the rise of automation actually improves career prospects for university graduates, as it is creating a new job market. Forbes Magazine reports that artificial intelligence is predicted to create 58 million jobs as 2022 approaches.

As the popularity of automation systems and the use of artificial intelligence in the workplace becomes more widespread, there will be more and more people required to actually build and develop these systems.

This will open up opportunities for those who wish to enter the fields of robotics and information technology. BBC News anticipates the prominence of data analysts, social media specialists and software developers, as a result.

For this reason, while one may argue that automation has resulted in the elimination of certain jobs, the introduction of automation in the workforce is actually creating more jobs and opportunities in our current digital age.

Luckily, McMaster University has many programs to equip students with the necessary skills to flourish in our digital age. The recent construction of the Hatch Centre shows McMaster’s testament to students advancing in these fields.  

Even if one is not interested in working in the field of automation, that does not mean that they are otherwise at risk of being unable to obtain a job. There is an increasing demand for “human skills” in the workforce since these skills are what distinguish robots from actual human beings.

University graduates tend to seek out careers that require a higher level of education which simply cannot be programmed into automation systems. It would be way too costly and time consuming to teach a robot the knowledge a person has acquired from their post-secondary education.

There are also plenty of skills, academic and otherwise, that students learn and develop through their time at university. Education and experiential opportunities prepare students to apply their knowledge in a variety of situations.

For example, critical thinking skills and problem solving are transferable “soft skills” that employers seek and students develop during their time at university.

Some jobs require humanistic qualities, which are simply not possible for a machine to replicate. For instance, no matter how much technology advances, robots may never be capable of understanding human emotions and experiences.

The interpersonal skills, empathy and compassion that people develop by interacting with one another are skills that are beneficial for the work environment. These skills equip anyone to thrive professionally as the future of the job outlook changes.

Technological advancements such as automation will inevitably impact life as we know it, and that includes changing our work environments. However, these changes are not inherently harmful and the possibilities for post-secondary graduates remain promising.

Students must be proactive, take initiative to educate themselves as much as possible and work on developing these skills. Provided that students make the most of their university experience, and are willing to undergo some extra training to keep their learning sharp, robots are sure to have nothing on them.

 

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If a robotic hitchhiker's guide to the United States were ever written, hitchBOT would probably have a thing or two to say about Philadelphia.

And yet it's remarkable to think that the child-like construction of hitchBOT and its simple quest to travel the world came to embody a far more complex notion of "the separation between matter and the special status of humankind."

That's how Prof. David Harris Smith, one of hitchBOT's co-creators, put it at a recent talk titled "The Death and Lives of hitchBOT, the Hitchhiking Robot.”

The talk comes a few months following the social robot's untimely demise in Philadelphia in early August, where it was vandalized only two weeks into its American journey. Previously, hitchBOT had successfully traveled across Canada, Germany and the Netherlands since the start of its travels in the summer of 2014.

Smith is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University, and is well noted for his efforts in a field likened as "cultural robotics," which he himself described as "the creative use of robots and AI to manifest a reflexive action, highlighting the construction of values, identities and beliefs."

The hitchBOT project was perhaps a culmination of these efforts, a cultural and social experiment developed in tandem by teams led by Prof. Smith and Prof. Frauke Zeller at McMaster and Ryerson University, respectively. With bright neon limbs made up of material that could have come from the dollar store, underneath the hood hitchBOT was a sophisticated piece of hardware that included a GPS-locator for the team to track and an LED screen to convey emotion.

Most importantly though, hitchBOT ran on a number of programs that included a conversational AI called Cleverscript, giving it the capacity to interact with human beings and create conversation in real time while literally hitchhiking across the country.

Prof. Smith's discussion went far beyond an account of hitchBOT's journey across the world though, as he tried to capture the spirit of what made hitchBOT so popular.

"People wanted to do things with it that were somehow culturally identifying," Smith commented.

Between the extensive social following hitchBOT had amassed and the outpouring of support it received following its demise — over half a million unique visitors were drawn to hitchBOT's website in August alone — hitchBOT represented an idea beyond its destination. What hitchBOT could represent was important for Smith and his team in developing the robot, and played a role in why they chose to specifically pursue a child-like whimsical appearance.

"That was central; we definitely wanted to make it out of junk, stuff you would have around your house. It's part of that desire to make it accessible, to make it approachable, an object that is actually able to manifest a humourous disposition."

This was essential, as hitchBOT was entirely dependent on human sympathy and assistance to get to its destinations.

With the increase in fame, hitchBOT also ended up receiving numerous offers of advertisements for products such as tires and soft drinks, but to Smith and his team, this was against the greater vision they had for hitchBOT.

"Somebody was going to give us 40,000 euros just to put a sticker on it. We turned that down because we didn't want to commercialize the thing; as soon as you brand it in that way, I think you lose your audience," he said.

The social robot’s whimsical impression made it all the more tragic for people invested in the robot's journey across the world. The idea that something so innocent and unimposing would find its end so violently and abruptly was something that captured the attention of media across the world, and support came in numerous forms from tweets, to hitchBOT cosplay and rallies.

However, despite the attention it received following its demise, Dr. Smith would still have preferred that hitchBOT simply could have continued its journey.

"Do I have any positive views of the fact that it was destroyed? No, not really. I would be more pleased if it was still out there, doing its thing," he explained.

"For us we'd rather people had a chance to experience it and know the adventure would continue in some way."

Dr. Smith is currently working on a number of projects that will continue to build on hitchBOT's legacy, including an opportunity to potentially put a social robot on the International Space Station. There have been many offers for hitchBOT's travels to continue, including in the United States, but it remains to be seen if hitchBOT will live again.

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The part-robot, part-social experiment known as HitchBOT has come to an abrupt and unfortunate end. The robot’s Twitter announced on Aug. 1 that it was destroyed beyond repair, only two weeks into its American journey.

A popular and whimsical project that had garnered international attention, HitchBOT was developed in tandem by McMaster and Ryerson professors in an attempt to observe and understand how people would interact with robots in a natural setting.

“It kind of pushes the limitation of technology, not in the traditional way, but in human interaction with it,” remarked Mechatronic Engineering student and project member Dominik Kaukinen, in a fall interview with The Silhouette [Sept. 18, 2015]. “They’re attempting to treat it on a personal level.”

While some did manage to treat the robot with personal respect, shortly into its travels in the USA, HitchBOT was vandalized.

With a child-like bright blue and yellow aesthetic, the robot remained surprisingly sophisticated, armed with a GPS-locator, access to social media, and an LED screen on which it could create conversation and display its personality.

With no means of transporting itself, the robot relied on its charm and the goodwill of passing drivers to carry it across enormous distances.

Nearly one year ago, HitchBOT completed a 6,000 km journey across Canada that began in Halifax, NS and brought the robot all the way to the Pacific coast in Victoria, BC.

The robot had also completed trips in Germany and the Netherlands to warm reception before beginning its American journey in Boston on July 17, with San Francisco as its final destination.

The robot was in Philadelphia and was last picked up by prank video YouTube stars Jesse Wellens and Ed Bassmaster. According to HitchBOT’s team, the head and various parts were missing following the incident.

However, despite the end of its journey, HitchBOT’s demise has received extensive media coverage and support on social media.

In a show of solidarity with McMaster’s creators, a group of innovators from Philadelphia will be constructing a similar robot, “PhillyLoveBOT”, with the help of one of the original HitchBOT creators, Mechatronic Engineering student Colin Gaigich. Tech developers and robot enthusiasts came together at the Hackatory, a creative tech space in downtown Philadelphia, to begin work on the sister robot this week.

While it may seem like HitchBOT reached its end this summer, this may just be the beginning of its adventure.

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