June 21, 2012
For all the speech lines we hear about jobs these days, rarely does anyone mention robots.
They do occasionally, but usually it’s saved for the “innovation” speeches. This is understandable. If you’re running for office, better to keep the two ideas separated, because while jobs are good because they’re, well, jobs, and robots are good because they mean progress, mix the two together and soon enough people will start asking how you’ll be able to create a lot of jobs if these really smart machines are doing more and more of the work.
No, I’m not going all Luddite on you. I’m in awe of machines and the remarkable things they can now do. But that’s the point. We’re not talking about the technology of the past, which clearly made humans more productive and allowed us to move into better-paying jobs requiring more specialized skills.
Now we’re creating machines that are much more than tools. They’re learning to think and adapt, and technologists such as Martin Ford, author of Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, believe that within five to ten years, machines will be able to surpass the ability of humans to do routine work. As he told The Fiscal Times: “It’s the first time we’ve had this level of technology that allows machines to solve problems on their own, to interact with their environment, to analyze visual imagines, and to manipulate their environment based on that.”
Do robots know “Kumbaya?”
There are those, of course, who feel that Ford and other techno-downers have the human-robot thing all wrong. Futurist Ray Kurzweil, for one, is convinced that by mid-century, humans and robots will merge in some form. Maybe we’ll be able to live forever in a body of artificial parts. Or our consciousness will live on inside a computer, a kind of humanoid software. Whatever shape it takes, Kurzweil already has a name for it– singularity.
Kurzweil’s take is that machines are gaining intelligence so quickly that it won’t be that long before they’re considerably more intelligent than humans. And he says we should be encouraged by this, not threatened. Technology will only continue to make our lives better, he contends, in ways we can’t yet imagine.
Five years ago, he likes to point out, who would have thought that hundreds of millions of people around the world would be walking around with devices as powerful as smart phones. Or that almost half a million people could have jobs in the business of making mobile apps.
Still, all of this doesn’t seem to bode well for people who don’t have the skills to play in that world. Earlier this month, Forbes, in an article titled, “Is Your Job Robot-Proof?” noted that, “Today America needs 5 million fewer workers to produce a greater value of goods and services than it did in December 2007 when the recession began.”
And other recent news from the robot front provides more grist for worriers like Ford. Canon just announced that it has begun phasing out human workers in its plants, and that in a few years its cameras will be made solely by robots. Earlier this month DARPA, the R&D arm of the Pentagon, awarded $1.2 million to a Georgia start-up to develop machines that would allow U.S. factories to “produce garments with zero direct labor.” That might allow American clothing factories to actually undercut the costs of cheap labor in China.
Or maybe not. Foxconn, the giant Chinese company known both for manufacturing Apple products and for worker suicides, announced last year that it will create a “robot kingdom” of more than 1 million robots within the next few years.
If you could read my mind
But there’s been at least one recent development that’s more in line with Kurzweil’s vision of robot-human togetherness. Researchers at MIT say they’ve developed an algorithm that will enable robots to work side-by-side with humans. The software apparently will allow robots to learn the preferences of their human partners and anticipate their needs out on the factory floor. And if the machine has to move on to help another worker, it would be able to quickly adapt to him or her.
Julie Shah, head of the MIT research team, put it this way: “It’s an interesting machine-learning human-factors problem. Using this algorithm, we can significantly improve the robot’s understanding of what the person’s next likely actions are.”
Wonder if they’ll be able to smell fear?
Mo’ better machines
Here are more reports on robots rising:
- Snakes on a vein: Scientists at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh have created tiny, snake-like robots that, armed with cameras, scissors, forceps and sensors, are helping doctors perform surgery on hearts and cancer tumors.
- The barista will not respond to lame attempts at flirtation: A start-up at the University of Texas has installed a coffee kiosk run by a robot barista in the campus’ academic center. Students can order their drink online or on their phone and receive a text when it’s good to go.
- So much for the career in sushi: Yes, the Japanese have been on to the robots in restaurants thing for awhile. But now food machine manufacturer Suzumo has developed a sushi-making robot that can crank out 2,500 pieces in an hour.
- Don’t even think about pulling my finger: Researchers at the University of Southern California have given robots a sense of touch–one, in fact, that’s actually more sensitive than a human’s finger. Sensors can even tell where and in which direction forces are applied to robot’s fingertip.
- That’s nice, but it still doesn’t do windows: Roomba, the king of household robots, is going wireless. iRobot announced earlier this week that its new Roomba 790, which retails for a mere $699, will come with a “wireless command center” that, among other things, will allow you to schedule it to clean your house while you’re not home.
Video bonus: From the land that nailed Robot Cute long ago comes i-SODOG, a robot pup that shakes, dances, responds to voice commands and can be trained through your smartphone. Ignore the background din of little awestruck Japanese kids. This is a toy you’ll want to take to work, to dates, to job interviews. How could they not hire you?
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.