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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Is a future of self-driving everything what we want?

Anything with wheels, or even that moves upon the earth, will eventually have the ability to drive itself.

The self-driving bus EZ10 undergoes tests on a closed-off road in Taipei, Taiwan.  Eventually virtually everything moves will be self-driving. David Chang / EPA
The self-driving bus EZ10 undergoes tests on a closed-off road in Taipei, Taiwan. Eventually virtually everything moves will be self-driving. David Chang / EPA

Self-driving cars are getting all the headlines but are we ready for self-driving everything?

Like it or not, it’s the way things are going. Anything with wheels, or even that moves upon the earth, will eventually have the ability to drive itself.

On the one hand, this is good because it means no more pushing or pulling for us humans. On the other hand, we’re going to have to be careful or we could end up like those blob people in the movie Wall-E – unable to walk or do much else thanks to years of laziness-induced muscle atrophy.

Self-driving wheelchairs, for example, are being tested at Changi General Hospital in Singapore. A joint effort between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the National University of Singapore, the wheelchairs combine computer vision, robotics, machine learning and cloud computing technologies to get around on their own.

They are part of the island country’s plan to deal with a lack of healthcare workers. Healthcare authorities believe there are better ways to deploy their limited human workers, so they’re trying to automate basic tasks.

“These nurses are more precious in doing their work - in taking care of the patients - than pushing them around in the wheelchair,” director of government digital services Mark Lim at a conference told news site GovInsider.

On the retail front, Walmart is also looking to better employ - or potentially eliminate some of - its human labour force with self-driving shopping carts. The company last year filed a patent on robo-carts, which could come in handy in a number of ways.

Self-driving carts could follow customers around stores, as well as corral themselves after they’ve been abandoned. They could also bring products to employees, saving workers from having to move back and forth between store aisles and storage areas.

As Walmart’s patent application suggests, “Shopping carts are left abandoned, aisles become messy, inventory is not displayed in the proper locations or is not even placed on the sales floor, shelf prices may not be properly set and theft is hard to discourage.” Robotic carts may end up being the solution.

Then there are self-driving baby strollers, which will free parents from the onerous task of having to push their children around. The Smartbe Intelligent Stroller, for one, hit its US$95,000 funding goal on crowd-funding site IndieGoGo last year, with an eye to beginning manufacturing this year.

As with many crowd-funding efforts, the US-based developer reported a delay in manufacturing earlier this year, but it’s only a matter of time before someone makes a robotic stroller a reality.

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Read more:

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Trucking on the road to a technological revolution

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Robotic vacuums, meanwhile, went mainstream long ago thanks to the Roomba, but they’re inspiring several similar floor and ground-based devices. New York-based Kobi, for one, is developing self-driving leaf and snow blowers. As with the Smartbe stroller, the company hasn’t made its machines available yet, but says it has sent test units out into the wild. For anyone who has spent hours clearing leaves or snow, these things can’t get here soon enough.

For the truly lazy, there are even self-driving chairs under development by none other than Nissan. The car maker is obviously pursuing autonomous vehicles, like its peers, but it is also working on making queueing a little more enjoyable.

The “ProPilots” sit in a line and automatically move up a spot when they sense that the chair at the front has been vacated. That chair then automatically moves to the back of the line while all the others advance.

As bizarre as that sounds, the ProPilot isn’t even Nissan’s only autonomous chair effort. The company has also released videos showing off an “Intelligent Parking Chair”, which can push itself under a board-room table when not in use.

If you’re thinking this all sounds pretty silly, you’re not alone. Earlier this year, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a video depicting the self-stepping shoe – or footwear that “uses high-precision radar and real-time GPS to automatically avoid obstacles and hazards in a walker’s path, especially oncoming pedestrians”, according to the university’s website.

Alas, it’s too bad it was just an April Fool’s joke.

It’s all goofy stuff, to be sure, but these are all also good examples of how ubiquitous connectivity and the declining cost of computing and sensors will allow such flights of fancy to become reality. And for good or for ill, we humans may never have to lift a finger again.

Winner of the Week: Facebook. The social network is rolling out Watch, a new original video content feature that will seek to compete with the likes of YouTube. Facebook is trying to woo creators with a 55-per-cent cut of ad revenue.

Loser of the Week: Netflix. Disney announced last week that it will eventually pull its content off of Netflix and make it available via its own streaming service, coming in 2019. With Disney owning Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel superheroes, the streaming giant’s catalogue is going to take a big hit.

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