Cyprus Mail

Government looking into new airport technologies to speed up passenger movement  [Video]

Pepper the humanoid robot with scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson

FOLLOWING passenger uproar over recent delays at passport control at Paphos airport, the government is not only planning to offload screening to a private company to free up immigration police, but is in preliminary talks with European and Japanese tech companies to replace border officers entirely by 2020, the Cyprus Mail has learned.

This means the contract with whoever wins the screening tender is likely to be signed for no longer than three years as an interim solution. Public services unions are already kicking up a fuss over the screening tenders, due to be issued this summer, worried about how their rights and benefits will be affected.

But Rob Ottikks, a Dutch tech expert who is a long-time resident of Cyprus, said he was among a number of industry advisers in talks between the government and Artificial Intelligence (AI) developers in Europe and Japan.

He said he was going public about the government’s plans because the recent spate of strikes by public servants such as nurses was putting people’s lives at risk and they needed to know that there were alternatives that cost much less.

Ottikks was not worried about a backlash from his revelations as his contract did not oblige him to maintain secrecy when it came to the press, he said. Also his contract was nearing an end because the negotiations with foreign manufacturers were at an advanced stage. “It is also only a matter of time before all of this is leaked by the presidential palace anyway,” he said.

It was high time the members of PASYDY and other civil service unions realised that “in a few years a good many of them would be dispensable”, Ottikks said.

“There are many areas of the public service where robots could replace them,” he said, adding that it would likely make for a more efficient and pleasant experience for the public.  “I know many civil servants come across as robotic anyway but with real robots you can at least programme them not to be lazy and rude,” Ottikks added.

As an adviser to the government, Ottikks said the idea was to start replacing public servants gradually starting with the airports where other European countries were already leading the way. “It is also immensely cost-effective,” he said.

Ottikks said the Japanese AI robot Pepper that went on sale last year for instance costs less than €2,000. Its makers, Softbank, are now adapting Pepper for American and European culture differences and the AI, which reads facial expressions and emotions, speaks 17 languages and is capable of conversation, “is the one to watch as it is developed further”.

“Can you imagine a line of Peppers at the airport overseen by only one actual officer? Think of the savings per month on salaries and benefits, the millions per year. The government is really keen to pursue this but afraid to go public in case of the inevitable reaction but I think the public servants should know from now that for many of them, their days are numbered,” the source added. “It might humble them a little in the meantime.”

According to numerous reports, French engineering giant Thales is working on a number of new technologies that aim to speed to the transit of passengers through airports.

Techweek Europe said that during the last Paris Air Show, Thales showed off a tall white robot that confirms a person’s identity without the need for human border staff. “You would only need one agent for every four or five machines,” said Pascal Zenoni, a Thales manager. “These systems can free up staff for the police and create more space in the airport.”

Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport is currently in operational trials for the Spencer robot, which is said to go “far beyond the skills of the current generation of robots”. According to a tech magazine report “it is hoped that Spencer will be able to recognise emotions, consider group behaviour and proactively respond to unexpected situations”.

An official at public service union PASYDY when contacted by the Cyprus Mail to comment on whether they were worried about being replaced by robots, thought it was a prank call and hung up.

Several attempts to contact the transport ministry were picked up by what seemed to be robotic answering machines saying there was no one there to take the calls as the offices were closed for the day. It was 11am.

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