January 21, 2018

The Robot I’d Have a Beer with – After He Takes My Job

The robots are taking over. I know, sounds like a teaser for a 1950s sci-fi movie. But it’s happening. It’s really happening.

Actually, it’s starting with just two robots. One is named Baxter. If you haven’t heard of Baxter, he is to our traditional perception of robots as a salt lick is to a gourmet meal. Most robots are single-function creatures, welding roofs to cars or drilling holes or some other basic operation.

But Baxter is a robot of refinement. He multitasks. For example, he can be programmed to pick and sort as well as any college kid at the UPS or FedEx distribution megaplexes at Christmastime and unlike his primitive forbears, who freak out when the bolts aren’t in exactly the same place they were the last time they reached for them, Baxter is cool with uncertainty. He can find stuff if he needs to, though if he drops a tool out of reach (proof of his amazing dexterity, not his klutziness) his expression (he has a simple, kindly monitor face) turns to one of confusion and he throws up his arms (well, actually he puts them down and shuts off and waits for a human to help him).

Baxter’s Kind of a Wimp
See, that’s the problem I have with Baxter. He is, to be perfectly honest, a bit of a milquetoast. He’s kind of afraid of humans – his software DNA tells him instinctively to avoid bumping into humans when working on an assembly line, for example. And he lets humans invade his personal space whenever they want to manipulate his arms to teach him new things to do.

And he just lets them do it!

What a wimp. I’m not having a beer with Baxter anytime soon.

Victor Has Got Some CPUs on Him
Now Victor, this guy, uh robot, is another story entirely. His monitor face has got prematurely gray hair tousled in a kind of I-don’t-care-but-I-care-enough-to-spend-$200-on-this-haircut kind of look. And he’s got a soul patch and a pair of glasses that look like they came off the rack at Armani. I’m sure that beneath his screen he’s wearing a black turtleneck that would have made Steve Jobs proud. In other words, Victor’s got attitude.

And man, can he trash talk, especially when he’s playing Scrabble, which is his favorite game. First he tries to amp his cred and intimidate his rivals with bombast like, “I am the correct king of Scrabble, Victor the mechanical marvel – that’s Victor the brilliant for short.”

Then he goes after his opponents. He’s currently hanging at a university proudly known for its nerdiness, Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU), so he goes right for the awkwardly protruding Adam’s apples of the students who challenge him: “Your words scored less than a CMU student at a party.”

Man, this dude’s got CPUs, huh?

Robots Are Learning to Fit In
But like most trash talkers, Victor’s abilities don’t quite match up to the words. In fact, he sucks at Scrabble and he’s a really bad loser. And he gets down on himself when he loses, looking really pissed off and revealing a vulnerability that is, well, kind of human.

And that’s the point. Scientists are realizing that for robots to co-exist with humans, they have to be a little more like us. So you take Victor and give him some arms (hey, who needs arms to work a virtual Scrabble board?) and a better education and now you’ve got a robot that could fit in at any Silicon Valley startup.

Lose the goatee and glasses and put a baseball cap over that hairstyle and he might be ready for a few boilermakers at a dive bar with the gang from the loading dock – if he doesn’t replace them first, that is.

What Happens When They Really Do Fit In?
And that’s the other point. Robots are already able to do a lot of things that humans can do. And that has major implications not just for factory workers, but for, let’s say, home health aides who lack a sense of humor, or journalists who can’t write like Hemingway (and even some that can). Business leaders and politicians need to get ready for the wave of job displacement that’s going to come when robots like Victor and Baxter get their mojos really working.

This is a big issue that MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee tackle head on in their fascinating book The Second Machine Age. You should read it. It will change your view of the internet, economics, and robotics forever.

Are you ready for a robot to replace you?

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