Saturday, November 13, 2010

Japanese robot actress

Here's a video of a Japanese robot actress that plays the part of a caregiver to a sick patient. I was in Japan in 1996 to attend the IROS robotics conference in Osaka. I had a chance to tour the robotics labs in Tokyo University. Many of the student projects involved creating humanoid robots, the idea being that the robots would be more readily accepted by their human owners if they appeared to be human. The robots were not very sophisticated at that time.

As the population of Japan grows older due to its declining birth rate, there is apparently an effort in Japan to create a variety of robots that can perform ordinary housekeeping tasks. The play mentioned in the clip is significant for addressing the not-unrealistic scenario that robots will soon become caregivers in Japanese homes.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Design anti-patterns: Automating the Horse

This is one of the most ubiquitous of all design anti-patterns: the tendency of clients to try to automate a horse. It's more than a tendency, it's almost a corporate imperative. It works like this.

You're a contractor or internal project team that is charged with implementing a new automated system. Because you need some requirements, you meet with your business partner and start taking their requirements. You may also get to interview some of the people who are performing the current work manually. The interviews with managers and employees sound like this:

"OK, first I open my folder and take out a blank form. I start filling in this field and then that one from the emails I got since last night. Then I call a department to get the information for this field or that field. And then I pull out my manuals to look this field up..." And on and on. If you ask why someone is doing a particular thing the answer is "because I need to do it to figure out what to put in this field."

When you start presenting possible solutions you get pushed on from the sponsor to "make it look like the current process so people won't get confused." What they want you to do is automate their horse. The first attempts to automate transportation usually included a lot of features that were present in the original biological equivalents: reins and manes and saddles for riding on land, feathers and wings and beaks for moving through the air, etc. Progress was made when the designers stopped thoughtlessly recreating the biological features and started to exploit the advantages of the technology itself: wheels and combustion engines and rudders and so on.

It also helped when the designers remembered the goal for all this activity. If your goal is to build a mechanical horse for a rider, then you spend your time worrying about putting in features that perceptibly satisfy that goal. If the goal is to build a device capable of carrying a passenger from one place to another by whatever means necessary then you can throw out your assumptions about the goodness of the existing solution start looking for a solution with whatever materials are available.

So you have to get the higher level goals for the activities that you are discussing with your business group. And this is often hard to do if your business people already have an "automated horse" solution in mind. But you persist, and try to use the automation project as an opportunity to re-think and redesign some existing processes, using technology to offload a lot of unnecessary work from the human operators. When this works, it's a big win for everyone. If you can't do a redesign, you often are left with a mechanical horse.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Carolina Student Design Competition

The official announcement of the first Carolina Student Design Competition has been posted. Students at universities in North and South Carolina are eligible to participate. Winners get prizes and the opportunity to present at next year's Innovate Carolina conference in Charlotte. I'm the coordinator, as mentioned in the announcement, so if anyone has questions, shoot me an email.

Friday, November 5, 2010

WSJ discovers speech IVR

A story about speech IVRs appeared in a very unlikely place, the Wall Street Journal. The story emphasizes the importance of the sound of the voice as a driver of customer satisfaction, but there's really more to it than that. I think the sound of the voice is important, and have done research to show it, but customer satisfaction also depends on understanding why the customer is calling and providing the right functions in an intuitive manner. The Comments section really show more understanding of this than the author of the article. Thanks to Jenni McKienzie for forwarding this.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Digression: Bears are killing the Bulls

I don't usually comment on nature stories, but this was too good to pass up. A photographer in Yellowstone park took some fantastic pictures of a bear chasing a half-cooked buffalo down a street.

It's kind of like a metaphor for the US economy for the past two years, the way the bears have been punishing the bulls. Sorry, couldn't resist.