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S1 Ep4: Are Robots Taking Our Jobs?

November 15, 2022

In this episode we take a look at the future of robotics. With robots in coffee shops, hospitals and schools, do we need to be worried about robots taking over our jobs? And could it be a good thing? Lars Klint discusses this and more with our robotics specialist Anthony Curtin.

The discussion covers:

  • The three types of robots: humanoid, hands and feet

  • Barista, cleaner and delivery robots

  • Can robots self-learn?

  • How can we get robots to talk to each other?

  • Future growth of robots - 1:1 ratio with human employees?

  • Solar-powered robots

  • Lars’ lawnmower-bot dreams

  • Boston Dynamic’s search and rescue dog-bots

  • Will I lose my job to a robot?

  • Is a Blade Runner future possible?

  • Don’t steal a robot

     

Anthony Curtin has worked in the technology space for over 15 years. He's got B2B sales experience with market leading technology innovators Toshiba and business spend management organizations such as SAP Concur and Coupa Software in mid and enterprise markets. He holds a Bachelor of Information and Technology from Monash University in Australia, and is passionate about sharing the capacity of robotics to improve people's lives and the way they run their businesses.

 

 

Further resources on the future of robotics

 

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Please send any questions or comments to [email protected].


What comes to mind when you hear the word robot? Do you picture a metallic humanoid like C3PO perhaps, in a spaceship in a distant future? Maybe it's a dystopian future where humanity is enslaved by just robot overlords. Or maybe just maybe you think of an assembly line with robot-like machines that are building your new car.

What we can agree on though is that robots are here for good. Now the term robot was first used by Czech author Karel Čapek, I think I'm saying that right, when he wrote his play, Rossums Universal Robots. This was 1920, and the robots were human-like biological machines, nearly indistinguishable from humans except for the fact that they have no soul.

No likes or dislikes and no feelings or opinions. Now we've moved on from those humanoid flesh bots today. In fact, it's predicted that the industrial robotics market is expected to grow by 175% over the next decade, and looks like the consumer market is well straight behind. So what is the future of robotics and how will it impact your day to day life?

We explore this and much more this time. My name is Lars Klint. This is TECHnically Possible, a show that investigates future technology's impact on us humans and our connections in the world. Whether that is good, bad, or well just plain weird.

If you're new to the podcast, let me give you a quick run. In each episode, we discuss an emerging technology and invite an industry expert to help us break down where we are currently at, and more importantly, where this tech could possibly or impossibly take us. All the while keeping it grounded in what exactly that means for us humans, and maybe even some fun along the way.

And to help me explore our world of robots. Let me introduce a guest for this episode. Anthony Curtin has worked in the technology space for over 15 years. He's got B2B sales experience with market leading technology innovators Toshiba and business spend management organizations such as SAP Concur, which we use at Pluralsight as well, and Coupa Software in mid and enterprise markets.

Anthony holds a Bachelor of Information and Technology from Monash University in Australia. And today Anthony has a passion for sharing the capacity of robotics to improve people's lives and the way they run their businesses. So thanks for joining me, Anthony. 

Oh, thanks Lars. Great to be here. 

So, what does that mean that you have passion for sharing the capacity of robotics?

Well, I've actually, now my professional working life is now all around robotics and robots in really the commercial workplace, essentially. Mm-hmm. . Although we can chat about how robots in general are around us in everything we do in our everyday lives, but passionate to see how the technology that's already there with robots really can work together with us humans, you know, in the workplace.

So it's really more of a, a cobot, as we say, journey, 

actually, that, that's a really good point. It's more of a cobot, isn't it? That we, we are using robotics, you know, hardware and software to help us be better or more efficient in what we do. It's yeah, you're right. There's certainly not, not all of them are looks like humanoids, that's for sure.

Correct. And the cobot really helps us because people out there think they're, they're going to be replaced by a robot. But it's certainly not true. It's certainly not true for the next decade, but it's certainly there to work in collaboration and help the employees Yeah. Which ultimately helps their customers.

Yeah. That's that's a good point and we will get into much more of, of well cobots and future and everything. But before we get to the meat of this episode, I wanna challenge your moralities. So now don't worry, this is just a bit of fun. There are no wrong answers and the points don't matter. This is to get you sort of warmed up, you know, get your brainwaves on track and make sure we prevent any future side fumbling on the show in a segment that we like to call Moral Technicality.

You are the world's leading robot engineer and you've found a rare earth metal, Unobtanium, in very limited quantities. You're currently working on three new world changing robots. The first one can remove CO2 from the air and convert into crisp, clean, delicious air. The second robot can make plants grow three times as fast with the same amount of care and nutrition, and the third robot can turn general household garbage into pure energy.

It also looks like a 1980s sports car that can fly. However, there's only enough Unobtanium to create one of them. So which would you choose and why? 

Wow, okay, they all sound pretty, pretty special. I think Number two, was it making plants growed three times the rate? Yep. You know, we look at you know, the environment today and all that sort of stuff, but really escalating that so we can have larger trees and more trees than our rate currently, especially in the winter climates. The oxygen one was probably my coming in, number two. I was just trying to see how it could be used in a wider environment or you know, underwater perhaps, or in space, you know, whatever it may be. 

We just need more Unobtanium.

Exactly right. And a robot to find it. 

Exactly. Oh, that's very good. Yeah. Well the whole idea is that, you know, there's no right, wrong answer. Right? So, cause I can imagine at times there are things where we need to choose, you know, one of three things we really wanna do and we can't focus on everything. So, you know, there's always a, a bit of a dilemma on which way to go.

Correct. 

So next up, let's discuss where robotics at today and what the current status is.

Well, the robots are coming. But in actual fact, they're already here. They're all around us in so many different ways, and they're already impacting our lives. Whether you are using one, you know, directly, or it's a part of a, a business you interact with, or a, a cafe, the robots, they all around us. They may have performed surgery on you.

They may have helped deliver your package to your house. They may have cleaned your hospital, they may have cleaned your office. They're certainly here and they're here to stay. And it's really needs to be thought as it's the evolution of the, the phone. So with the iPhone, for example, the smartphone, this is almost the next big thing to happen in the tech space, but it's already certainly happening now.

It's interesting cuz I never thought of it that way, that it's like a continuation of, you say the smartphone, but of current technology obviously. Cuz I have a vacuum robot cleaner as you, as you mentioned. I call him Vlad. I've put eyes on him to make him, I don't know, more human and more fun. I'm not sure why I did that.

A lot of people tend to. 

Yeah. And it, we wanna have this sort of more relation with our, it's always like, oh, where's Vlad? It's not, where's the vacuum cleaner? Right. So maybe we just trying to humanize him in some way. And that's certainly happening as well as I can tell. Am I wrong? 

No, certainly you, you're right there.

Especially, I'll give an example with the hotel industry. We've got many of our cleaning robots dressed up in the same uniform as the staff. And they have a name tag on the robot. One example is a hotel in Adelaide and they call it Rex. I don't think it's ever been called anything other than Rex during its time there.

So, yeah, and then that they can use it to, you know, greet people, greet the guests. So it's certainly yeah that's a great way to make it...we talked about the cobot being part of the business, being part of the journey of the robot. 

Yeah. So in terms of industries, now you mentioned hospitality. What are the main industries that we using robots in today?

Because, you know, I have one at my house, but obviously I just have one vacuum cleaner. Right. But where they used sort of in, in industries? 

Well, essentially we find them in warehouses. So picking up items from a shelf in a simple way. The medical profession's been using them for a long time in theater surgery as well.

The automation, or the manufacturing of vehicles, the assembly line. But in a more, sort of, a way in which people would be seeing them today is certainly cleaning, you know, hospitality and education. 

Education In what way? 

There's been a couple of humanoid robots being deployed globally. One comes to mind, which some of the listeners may have heard of, is, Pepper - the humanoid robot.

It was one of the actual, the first humanoid robots released on the market about five years ago. But they're used in education in universities, so there's two sides. There's the universities that learn to program these robots for use in a hospital perhaps, to meet and greets or to scan someone's face to ensure that they're wearing a face mask during the COVID times. Or we've got some example of robots been teaching Italian or French to the class, especially in a more primary school fashion because the, the kids really are more engaged with the robot than the teacher, it seems. 

How peculiar. 

Yeah. So there's, there's that sense. So there's the, the humanoid, then there's the, the hands-type robots, which would be the ones working with surgeries and warehouses.

And then we have the feet robots, the ones that would generally clean or deliver food, things like that. So there's sort of those three categories robots tend to fall into: humanoid, hands and feet. 

Humanoids, hands and feet. I met Pepper once, well, I met a Pepper, considering there's many of them. Yes. In Norway, I think it was in a, in a reception for a large consultancy.

And the Pepper came up and asked what my name was and then I can't remember if it printed a name badge or not, or something and I went and got it. But it did all the, the formalities initially. It was kind of fun.

It is. It's the children absolutely love it. Adults, certainly the inner child comes outta them when they see Pepper and it can be used for, with the coding side of things, it can be virtually used for anything. It's an open source platform, so as I said, the university students can pre-program it to do certain things. In Australia, we've seen it making coffees, so it's a barista. It's been used for making ice cream in Japan. I've seen them pour the perfect beer.

So there's, yeah, plenty of applications for Pepper. Some are more fun or gimmicky than others, but that's where we've moved. 

Yeah right. 

From humanoid to the actual, the cleaning and hospitality type robots, which are creating more of an impact. 

Yep, yep. So as a technologist, I appreciate robots. I like robots, you know, I like the engineering in them.

I like that sometimes they do one task really well, like flipping a burger. Sometimes they do multiple tasks really well. Will I, am I gonna save time if I buy a robot for everything? Like if I have a, you know, a vacuum cleaner robot and a, you know, burger flipping robot, like all these things that maybe just do one thing.

It sounds like we are gonna have problems with space and, and managing all these things. 

Well, exactly, yeah. Time is certainly a key point or a key value point of robots, but it's not gonna work with every type of robot. Flipping a burger, maybe, maybe not. Or it's just going to get more customers into your shop to actually look at it.

We find with more the commercial spaces where the time saving is there. So if you take a simple task of vacuuming, you know, 500 square meter function room by a person, which probably only gets done once in a blue moon or once in a month perhaps, or after a big function. We now have robots doing that almost daily.

And the actual traditional cleaner is focusing on the detail of the, say the hotel. And then therefore the enjoyment for the guests as well. So the guest experience. So again, that time-saving factor then creates greater value for the hotel to attract more guests. Because essentially the hotel industry's bounced back extremely strong as you can imagine, from COVID.

And so there's certainly a level of competition between various hotels. What can they offer the guests? You know, outside of swimming pool and tennis court, we have robots cleaning your rooms and hallways daily. So it ensures that guests and people like knowing that the companies are doing something since COVID.

And there's probably a point in the discussion is talk about what's really pushed robots in the market and, you know, certainly COVID has really helped the industry in that sense. 

Good point. It's the visual part of it is true. Like there's this, I guess, trust in that something's being done when you can see it.

Right? But what about something like self-learning? Are we, are we at self-learning robots yet? Cause that to me is sort of as a, you know, technologist that seems like the logical next step. Oh, I learned that, you know, last time this robot vacuumed around this thing, it got stuck. So next time it'll do it differently.

You know, things like that. Is that actually happening? 

Well, yes, it certainly has. So AI and machine learning has definitely been part of certain types of robots. You look at a trade delivery robot, which are being deployed in restaurants and also function centers and hotels, but they certainly use lasers and cameras and technology to understand where they are in terms of the relation of where they started and the building itself. But they, they do become smarter. So they're storing map information in the cloud, which will then be continuously improving the operation time. So it'll reduce the run time, but also improve the delivery of the food and drinks at the end of the day. But what we see next, and it's in development at the moment, is really utilizing the, you know, the likes of the internet of things, of really pushing the boundaries of AI and machine learning.

So an example could be that a cleaning robot goes out, performs its task, and during that 20 minutes when it notices through a platform of some kind, that there's water, there's a spillage, and could be a hospital, could be shopping center. So the platform would then notify the robots in the fleet, regardless of brand, because there's so many different types of robot brands and models out there.

But if the software platform is unified, the platform would inform the most suitable robot. In this case it could be a scrubber, to go out to the certain location, mop it up, make sure it's dry and come back to base all automatically. So it's really what can one robot do? Cause one robot's really fit for purpose, but they need to talk to each other on a single platform at the end of the day.

Huh, that is interesting. And I guess that's one of the problems that we face today, is that we have all of these different robot brands,and I see this, so I'm a tinkerer. I like tinkering with technology. I have a lot of home automation stuff, and I wanted to put my vacuum cleaner into the home automation so that I could say, oh, you know, if it's raining, then make sure you mop the floor as well, or whatever it might be, just to be able to start it based on certain events.

But I can't. So that particular platform that the robot cleaners on doesn't integrate with my home automation software. And that's like, well that's annoying. And so I guess that's one of the problems is this whole idea of we don't wanna silo it too much, do we? But it's also tricky cuz as a business you wanna obviously promote your own stuff in a way that makes it better.

So where's the balance there? I guess that's, that's what I'm asking? 

Nah you've hit the nail on the head there Lars. It's certainly a challenge. I think for, you know, the purpose of robotics, if you break it down is simply to make people's lives easier, more enjoyable. So the platform model is probably the best way to go about it 

Because ideally it's, you don't wanna think about your robots, do you?

They should just kind of work. 

That's right. Let them work for you. 

That's sort of where we at today. But what does the future of robotics look like? 

Tony, so we we're talking about the future. What, what do you reckon? What will change, if I'm gonna go big here, next five to 10 years, what, what are you envisioning?

What's gonna happen to robotics? 

Well we're gonna certainly see a lot more of them, Lars, that's for sure. So the growth that you mentioned earlier is it could exceed that as well. So we look at traditionally, Japan's being always owners of robotic birthplace, if you like. Yep. But it's actually almost South Korea or even Singapore that have really almost taken the mantle of, of robots in force.

So if you look at Singapore in particular, for every nine workers there are, there's 100 robots. Wow. And that's from the start of this year. So in five to 10 years time, it's almost gonna be one person for maybe one robot or two persons for one robot. It could get to that level in 10 years. So that's, that's something to look out to.

Yeah. But it's certainly growing. It's not gonna go away. And I've been at a few events recently and the events have been great to go back to after the absence of two years, but a lot of the events two years ago had maybe one robot at the event. Mm-hmm. And the last couple of events I've been to or expos, the robots have been the star of the show.

There's been up to like 20 robots, different types of robots. So they're certainly here as I mentioned. A lot of them, they're still not perfect and that comes with technology in general. But what we're finding though is you are going to have more robots that are smarter and last longer. So the key thing is battery life we find with robots.

They consume a lot of power. So the, the work with solar technology, maybe a hybrid model of some kind, but you'll see that they'll run longer and smarter and they'll be far more efficient. So we've only really seen the first quarter of the journey. Yep. And the next two quarters are going be a big jump and the last quarter is pretty much day to day lives. 

Yeah. 

So I live on a farm in Victoria in Australia and I'm looking at, okay, there's a lot of stuff to do here. What can I automate? That's why I got into home automation in the first place. So as an example, I've automated a bore pump with a bore tank. So then when it goes low, it'll fill it up, it'll stop itself.

I can read the level and so on. And that saves me a lot of time. But one of the things that I've spent, or you know, people in general on the farm spend an awful lot of time on is mowing. Like so much grass being mowed all the time. So I'm like, oh, okay, there's robot mowers and you know, I would need, I don't know, maybe four of them because there's, there's a few acres of grass that has been mowed and that's great, but that suddenly becomes really expensive.

And as you said, how do I make them then talk to everything else. So I'm thinking, okay, so the future for me is, I'm hoping it's gonna be cheaper robots, because, you know, if mass produce robots usually makes them cheaper, more reliable, and less maintenance. I'm being a bit practical. Is that possible? 

Well, I like your thinking Lars. The tech is there to some degree with a say, a scrubber, which can automatically refill, clean itself, you know, and charge. But if you look at the golf course side, there are robotic lawn mowers out there. More in the the home space, your backyards or your farm has certainly got a lot more grass than mine would have, as I imagine.

Yeah. We've got about three acres of grass. 

Wow. Okay. What would be an ideal solution with your robotic lawn mowers at your three acres of grass would be for it to know when it's time to cut based on the seasons as well. So you're getting basically a perfect cut every time without doing anything. 

Yeah. And that's, that's my goal. I don't wanna do anything. 

You want it to do its thing, sharpen the blades, empty the grass, and recharge and monitor your grass, essentially. But what the industry's looking at is that on a bigger scale or even your scale. But we're talking about, you know, public parks or golf courses where organizations may have the large equipment to mow the grass, but the autonomy is not there.

So that where the robots can come in and they can bolt onto the existing hardware or the existing machinery, and then perform a simple task. If you look at golf mowing the fairway, which is a monotonous task of going up, down, up, down and making sure you know, don't veer off too far. But what if a golf course has maybe five in of these types of machines?

What if you could control them all from one location? They could be used, you know, almost at nighttime because they're utilizing GPS, AI, machine learning, their mapping system with their lidar and cameras and things like that. And the cut can be set, say two millimeters or whatever it may be, and it's done perfectly every time.

And then the current staff, the green keepers focus on the the minor details. And that's a massive time-saving exercise. 

Yeah, I think you're right cuz it's, as much as I like having a mower for my lawn, you know, the actual benefit is industry doing either really complex things or doing them at a large scale, right?

Where less human involvements makes it well cheaper and more accurate. Is that how what you're thinking?

It is. And your robotics can be very, very complicated and, we try to take out the complexity and let the actual technology do the work. So utilizing software is a big part of robotics. We think of robotics being the physical, the hardware, but in actual fact the software is equally, if not more important to the whole robotics industry.

Yeah, that's interesting cuz it's often we see robots as really gimmicky. Like Pepper, slightly gimmicky. It did work and it did do a thing, but it's, you know, it's sort of also getting people familiar with robots, especially if they're humanoid. So are we hopefully going to see less gimmicky stuff and just more functionality maybe?

I certainly think so. And if you look at the way a robot needs to be built is it needs to be built for its function, fit for purpose, then be a robot, not the other way around. This is true. Start off being looking like a robot. Then you try and adapt it to a certain application, it's not going to perform as expected. So that's really what you'll see is robots that don't look anything like what people think a robot is. The Pepper, for example, yeah it's a bit like C3PO as you mentioned. Or one I had recently was Rosie from the Jetsons was being the maid, so that, that was the one I hadn't heard for a while.

That's stereotypical robot, but you'll certainly see them, you know, just as a box if you like, in some cases. Yeah. But they're performing their duty. They're performing their role as planned without the gimmicky-ness and things like that. Pepper's great or humanoids great from an entry point, greeting people and interacting.

Yep. 

But in terms of going about making our lives easier, it's with just a, a robot fit for purpose.

Yeah. And it's, I like that fit for purpose idea cuz it's sort of like, what's the problem you're solving? Right. And there's an American company that's been, they've been very popular on the internet because of, it's called Boston Dynamics because of their dog-like robots.

But they're now using them for search and rescue. They didn't go out to build a dog robot. They went out to build something they could find people on rough terrain. And that sort of, you know, as impressive as it is, it's still a very good example of they built something that works for what it was built for.

Correct. And I've seen a couple of those in person and they can be a bit daunting. It's almost like a giant spider. But yeah, certainly for search and rescue and security and, you know, identifying troubled terrain, for example. So that's been, from what I hear, a great success. 

Yeah. Yeah. It just, it looks interesting and also because it's, you know, we didn't think that was even possible 10 years ago building robots like that.

Now you said, and I wanna touch on this. Well, robots aren't gonna take our jobs. Now surely they are gonna take some jobs, but I think what you mean is that they're gonna allow you to be better at the job that is there, rather than having to do all the other stuff that robots can do so efficiently. So what is that gonna look like for the future?

Are we gonna work with robots? Are we just not gonna even gonna notice them? 

Certainly next 10 years, there's not gonna be a wave of people losing work because of robots. So if you look at a restaurant, for example, that the food delivery robot would deliver food from the kitchen to the table, or in a function center. It can go around the room as a cocktail party delivering food and drinks and taking away the empty glasses and plates.

But the human interaction is still needs to be. That is still a differentiator to businesses. Yep. It cannot just be robots because people want to go out for dinner. They don't go out for dinner just for the food alone. They go for the entire experience. Otherwise, it'd be the most expensive restaurant going around.

So we need to ensure that you have a balance, but the robots are here to stay. But it's really encouraging the, their employees to embrace robots because I think if they do that, that'll actually help their career. Because robots will fail or things will go wrong. You still need the human there.

And the humans that are actually embrace them and look after them and willing to learn alongside them will be valuable assets to any organization. 

You know, especially in my job, in yours probably too, change is inevitable. But we are always gonna see change. And I've learned to embrace it because, hey, that's just the next cool thing.

What do we get to learn now? And I think that's just part of life. Things do change, and I agree, it's, we saw this with the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s. We saw it with the computer revolutions, like people think they're gonna lose their job. And in fact, there's just other jobs that come along and there's many jobs that come along.

So yeah. I think you're right. I don't think we gonna lose jobs as such. They're just gonna change. So what you do today is probably not, we're just gonna change. Yeah. You're not gonna do that in 10 years and that's okay. So, yeah. Interesting. Now, just to go really far in the future here at the end of the show, are we ever gonna get to a point like Blade Runner, not as dystopian as Blade Runner, but at a point where we have completely humanized robots that do things for us?

Would we even do that? What do you reckon?

It's certainly possible, and it can certainly happen. I sort of believe it'll get to a point where it'll be yeah, fully taken over, but I don't think that will be for a long time. None of us alive today will be seeing that in action, but I think anything's possible.

And in the last 15 years the shift in technology has really gone to another level. The next 50 years are somewhat scary, but it's all part of, as you say, the learning curve and part of the human life. But it's exciting and I think, you know, as the years go on, or even certainly the months go on, more and more people will embrace this and it'll become the norm.

But when it goes to that next level, it'll be a, yeah, a different place. But I think there's a lot of other things, technology-wise in general, that robots can do that don't need to, you know, focus on a Blade Runner-type scenario. I think we can fix a lot of things.

People know about Blade Runner often, so that's sort of a, Hey, do you think robots, because currently there's, there's one called Sophia, which I just had to look up, but it's Sophia is the most human robot in terms of interactions and stuff, but it's still very on uncanny valley.

Like you're obviously talking to robot and they don't hide that fact either. But it's, it's not far off and it's basically a project to understand AI. So it's interesting. Interesting where we're gonna head. 

It is, it is. You know, although some people in the world maybe operate like a robot, it's going to be many years before they actually look and feel and like a real person.

But as we say, that's one part is to the humanoid, but the most value to a business and to really humans generally is the robot that is designed to do a certain application, wash the windows on a skyscraper for example. It's an exciting, exciting space to be and is moving very fast. Definitely.

And if we look to what robotics looks like in the future, there's things that we can look forward to in maybe a short period of time, and it's already in use in some areas, is with the pandemic of having food or items delivered to your hotel room is always considered somewhat risky with COVID and catching COVID and hotel quarantine.

Yeah. Sites and that. But we're looking at what if you could order your minibar your room service, a towel, or any amenities from the comfort of your smartphone, which would then be delivered to the kitchen or hospitality, and they would actually place the items on a robot secure. And it will go directly to your room via the lift with no interaction from anyone else, but the person actually that prepared the food or put the towels on the actual, the robot.

So then it would knock on your door or electronically press the buzzer and the robot would be there. You would scan your fingerprint, opens up a compartment and then your food is there. So it's not going to be contaminated in any way. No one's gonna steal it. And the other thing too is I've heard, you know, with security or even what if someone steals a robot and I would strongly suggest not to because, well, one, they're quite heavy, but two, they know where you are.

THey can be found via any method. So, yes. You won't last long out in the field with a stolen robot. 

No, you'll run outta a puff if anything.

But the final thing would be is what value are we getting out of this robot? It needs to have a return on investment of course. You know, sometimes robots may not have a return on investment initially. Because it's all about having technology into a certain application. But the long term strategy would definitely be to not only save time, but save money as well.

Yeah. I think that's where we at, isn't it, is we wanna save money and that's why we're doing robots, but also we could probably get better quality outcome for less money, I'd imagine cuz robots are very good at doing the same thing over and over again. Humans not so much. 

Correct. 

Thanks very much for your time, Tony.

This has been very educational but also quite interesting as well. Well, not that the two can't be related. It's certainly a future I'm looking forward to. I just want more robots to be honest. 

Yeah. Jeez, you and me both. Thanks Lar and thanks very much for your time. It's great 

to be on the show.

Awesome. So that's all for this time. If you like this episode, do consider subscribing to the show. We are available wherever you find good podcasts and also, give us a review, which will help others find the show as well. So tune in again next time for a conversation about what is technically possible.