Mr Cheery modified

Technology provides solutions - but has limits, too

By Anna Campbell

I met a cheery robot in a San Francisco mall a couple of months ago. He was standing smiling at the world, encouraging shoppers to visit him.

I knew none of my fellow shoppers, so I stood on the marked footprints on the floor in front of him and started to converse.

''Hello, how are you?'' I asked, no response, maybe it was my Kiwi accent.

''Hellooooo,'' still no response other than a tilt of his head and a whirring noise to demonstrate he was processing. Finally, I got a hello out of him, but no more.

Some conversation. Quite obviously he was an old white male - I feel duty bound to pick up Millie Lovelock's mantle here.

Seriously though, apparently we are going to be overtaken with robots, losing jobs left right and centre, right into the rest-home where robots will look after us in the future, instead of nurses. Well after my interaction with Mr Cheery, I say we have a long way to go.

Accountancy is an example of a profession being disrupted, interestingly though, having just had a conversation with a couple of clever financial chaps, I wonder if we are being a bit alarmist.

Surely people who can interpret and question finances and associated data will always be required?

Automation will come up with a product or an answer, but not always help us to understand whether that answer is right or the context in which we should use it.

Bring on artificial intelligence as the next step then, our human thoughts turned into a series of algorithms - crikey, good luck interpreting my brain!

Similarly, I have read much about, and via our company, am investing in the burgeoning field of agri-technology.

Agri-technology has seen an enormous increase in investment dollars internationally but some are starting to question whether this is in fact another ''bubble'' (

One of the challenges of new technologies, in agriculture, health or any other field, is that biological data is inherently messy. Farmers know this, what works management-wise in one season can be a disaster the following season.

Technologies that require a lot of faffing around with to set-up and trouble-shoot and which don't give instant answers, become more hassle than they are worth and will lie unused in the back of the woolshed - an expensive mistake.

In response, technologists are told time and time again to solve problems rather than push products that have little use. However, in my experience technologists, like scientists, are often driven by the technology itself and how clever it could be, rather than the end-user and what they need.

I have no doubt there will be many sensors, data collection points and interconnecting technologies on-farm and in our lives in the future. These will reduce some mechanical jobs and enable us to make better decisions - sometimes.

Right now, new artificial intelligence algorithms allow us to get from A to B in a simple process.

An example is photo tagging, where Facebook has a person labelled numerous times so the software can recognise that person in a photo via mathematical patterns associated with face shape and so forth and suggest to you that you tag them.

I find it vaguely creepy, even more so that the google machine knows where I live and how long it will take me to get home.

Such processes are still mostly limited to something it takes our brain to do in about one second. We still have a long way to go to develop machines that can compete with the complexities of our thought and conversation processes.

In the meantime, to develop technologies of value in a messy biological world, we need to focus on solving problems and being open-minded enough to work across disciplines: technologists need biologists, farmers, climatologists, geologists, engineers, sociologists and so much more.

It's hard for me to admit, but accountants are not redundant just yet.