Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Just How Smart Are the Bots?

In 2013, much of world (and I) were smitten with the award-winning movie 'Her'. It was a rather entertaining movie; one that featured the lead actor, Joaquin Phoenix, falling in love with - wait for it - a computer system powered by Artificial Intelligence! So deep and moving was the man-machine love story that it raised the question - exactly how smart have the machines become? Turns out, quite a lot.

Chatbots first made an appearance in 1966. She was called ELIZA. (Yes, the bot was not only christened but also given a pronoun). Developed by German scientist Joseph Weizenbaum, the bot had roughly 200 lines of code and was capable of mimicking human conversations so accurately that she could fool others into believing that she was human! Above all, it was ELIZA's ability to pass the Turing Test, a test to determine intelligence based on how well it could impersonate human behavior, that made her particularly popular. ELIZA was succeeded by PARRY in 1972 - a more advanced version which bore the nickname, 'ELIZA with an Attitude'. From thereon, the bots only kept getting bolder, better, and well, smaller in size.

Today, chatbots are even taking on a number of human skills. We have chatbots for customer services which means the next time someone inquires about when their purchase will be delivered, it could be a chatbot answering their query. That's not all. If you can't figure out why your baby is red with rashes, a chatbot will help you fix a doctor's appointment. Likewise, other sectors such as insurance and banking also make use of chatbots. By communicating through natural conversation patterns, bots can answer relevant questions, coordinate activities, make financial statements, and even order you a pizza with choice of assorted toppings. According to Mircosoft's CEO Satya Nadella, bots are the new apps. By enabling conversation-based interactions (as compared to apps where customers navigate between static pages and drop-down menus) chatbots are on their way to making apps extinct.Chatbots are expected to disrupt all segments of insurance, much like many other industries. Some of the major insurance firms which has already embraced chatbots include Allianz, Link4 of Poland, Co-op Banking Group, Nationale-Nederlanden Insurance, Credit Agricole of France and RBC Insurance in Canada.

Back when I was a kid, my favorite cartoons were The Flintstones and The Jetsons - two drastically different and utopian worlds that were centuries apart; one way before my time and the other so far into the future, I thought I'd never see it happen. Turns out, I may have undermined technology just a little bit.

What Is Mechatronics?

Mechatronics, the term coined in Japan in the 1970s, has evolved over the past 25 years and has led to a special breed of intelligent products. What is mechatronics? It is a natural stage in the evolutionary process of modern engineering design. For some engineers, mechatronics is nothing new, and, for others, it is a philosophical approach to design that serves as a guide for their activities. Certainly, mechatronics is an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary one. It is clear that an all-encompassing definition of mechatronics does not exist, but in reality, one is not needed. It is understood that mechatronics is about the synergistic integration of mechanical, electrical, and computer systems.

One can understand the extent that mechatronics reaches into various disciplines by characterizing the constituent components comprising mechatronics, which include: (i) physical systems modeling, (ii) sensors and actuators, (iii) signals and systems, (iv) computers and logic systems, and (v) software and data acquisition.

Engineers and scientists from all walks of life and fields of study can contribute to mechatronics. As engineering and science boundaries become less well defined, more students will seek a multi-disciplinary education with a strong design component. Academia should be moving towards a curriculum, which includes coverage of mechatronic systems. In the future, growth in mechatronic systems will be fueled by the growth in the constituent areas. Advancements in traditional disciplines fuel the growth of mechatronics systems by providing "enabling technologies."

For example, the invention of the microprocessor had a profound effect on the redesign of mechanical systems and design of new mechatronics systems. We should expect continued advancements in cost-effective microprocessors and microcontrollers, sensor and actuator development enabled by advancements in applications of MEMS, adaptive control methodologies and real-time programming methods, networking and wireless technologies, mature CAE technologies for advanced system modeling, virtual prototyping, and testing. The continued rapid development in these areas will only accelerate the pace of smart product development. The Internet is a technology that, when utilized in combination with wireless technology, may also lead to new mechatronic products.

While developments in automotives provide vivid examples of mechatronics development, there are numerous examples of intelligent systems in all walks of life, including smart home appliances such as dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, microwaves, and wireless network enabled devices. In the area of "human-friendly machines", we can expect advances in robot-assisted surgery, and implantable sensors and actuators. Other areas that will benefit from mechatronic advances may include robotics, manufacturing, space technology, and transportation. The future of mechatronics is wide open.