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Free Minds & Free Markets

The Robot Revolution Is Here

They're sweeping my floors, watching my kids, and stealing my job. Here's why I'm not worried.

The shiny white robot has a stooped, almost deferential stance as it approaches the Honda employees seated around a table. It turns its black faceplate to the humans, makes an open-handed gesture, and asks if they want anything to drink.

The people all speak simultaneously. What initially seems like rudeness turns out to be efficiency: ASIMO, the most advanced humanoid robot on the market, can understand multiple voices at once and uses facial recognition software to match the men with their requests. "Oolong tea, Mr. Ohara?" "Coffee, Mr. Oga?" "Milk tea, Mr. Ariizumi?" it confirms. They nod, and ASIMO heads off to fill the orders.

So far, ASIMO—at least as seen in a 2014 segment on Japanese public television—appears rather more competent than the baristas at my local Starbucks, who frequently ask me to repeat my order and haven't a clue who I am, despite my semi-regular appearances at the same location for the last six years. But as ASIMO walks away to pick up the drinks, it's apparent that there's much work ahead for Honda's engineers. The gait of the hobbit-sized machine is slow, with the knees-bent, elbows-out posture of a cautious toddler on unfamiliar turf. Honda claims that ASIMO (an acronym for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, not a deliberate tribute to the science fiction novelist Isaac Asimov, the company insists) comes equipped with a collision avoidance system, but that too is on par with a 2-year-old—everything is fine when nearby people are moving slowly and making allowances for the fledgling bot, but Mr. Ohara, Mr. Oga, and Mr. Ariizumi would be very thirsty indeed if they trusted ASIMO to pick up their drinks and carry them down a busy city street at rush hour.

Watching Honda's latest shuffle along creates a kind of vertigo. The robot revolution seems simultaneously upon us—look, a real robot serving coffee!—and eons away. But that dissonance is a clue that we are nestled in the elbow of an exponential curve. All around us, a Cambrian explosion of robotics is taking place, writes Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation, at Singularity Hub, "with species of all sizes, shapes and modes of mobility crawling out of the muck of the lab and onto the terra firma of the marketplace, about to enter your home and your shopping experience."

Diamandis is right. Your house, neighborhood, and office are already full of the robots humanity has been waiting for with both anticipation and dread. They may be the equivalent of trilobites now, but they're multiplying and mutating rapidly. While pessimists fret that a new kind of intelligent automation will mean social, economic, and political upheaval, the fact is that the robots are already here and the humans are doing what we have always done in the face of change: anticipating and adapting where we can, muddling through where we can't, and trying to enjoy the ride.

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roomba

When it comes to prognostications about the robot revolution—and for the purposes of this article, we'll take an expansive view of what constitutes a robot, lumping together a wide variety of automated digital and mechanical deputies—Roombas are frequently asked to shoulder more than their fair share of the burden. Semi-autonomous vacuums are the most visible robots on the market, with more than 10 million sold worldwide at the end of last year. They look like the devices science fiction told us to expect: standalone machines that perform tasks on behalf of human beings, integrated into everyday life.

But if we're being honest, they're also a bit of a letdown. Anyone willing to fork over a few hundred bucks to the iRobot Corporation can have a machine zip out from under his sofa—that's where mine lives, anyway—and vacuum his house from time to time. It's oddly hypnotic to watch the device in action, as it deftly avoids falling down stairs, extricates itself from rug tassels and tight spots, and handily routes around chair legs. But it's just a vacuum cleaner, after all: a slightly smarter version of the dishwashers, washing machines, and microwaves we take for granted. And like ASIMO, the Roomba seems remarkably capable at some tasks and astonishingly inept at others, as when it accidentally bumps the door of the bathroom closed and then bounces around for hours, mindlessly cleaning the same tiny space until its battery dies.

ASIMOHonda Motor Co.

Then there's the matter of the human maintenance required by our robot servants. The Roomba will go find its charging station when it needs more power (unless it's locked in the half bath, of course). But it requires a person to empty the reservoir when it's full of dirt and to periodically clean the moving parts. I'm terrible at taking care of my Roomba—I haven't changed the filters, well, ever—which generates a vague sense of guilt, as if I am mistreating a pet. In fact, extracting small objects from its bristles when they get caught feels surprisingly similar to the act of yanking a chicken bone from the mouth of a disobedient puppy. Small mammals love Roombas—YouTube offers an entire genre of "Roomba rodeo" videos, in which babies, cats, and small dogs glide around on the backs of the motorized discs—but the expensive machines are not meant to be used as carnival rides and are easily damaged, requiring yet more intervention. These 10 million vacuums don't exactly seem poised to gain sentience and take over the planet.

Still, having a Roomba means that I spend less time cleaning up crushed snack-food items—or less money employing someone else to perform that task. Does the fact that a machine instead of a person is lowering the Cheerio-load in my carpet mean it's time to start freaking out about the future of employment?

The Automation Jobless

When we talk about robots taking jobs, strong hydraulic arms looming over factory assembly lines is what comes most readily to mind. The International Federation of Robotics put the population of industrial robots at more than 1.1 million in 2013, making robots a well-established component of U.S. manufacturing.

But the more interesting (and less well understood) phenomenon is the advent of robot replacements for jobs long considered immune from mechanization, particularly the service functions that make up a significant part of our day-to-day interactions.

Speaking at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in March, Bill Gates hinted that a little freaking out might be in order: "Software substitution, whether it's for drivers or waiters or nurses, [is] progressing...Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don't think people have that in their mental model." A September 2013 study from Oxford University looked at 702 occupations and found that 47 percent of total U.S. employment faces the risk of being eliminated in favor of computerization.

But this isn't the stuff of a misty, menacing future. It's already underway. The Botlr robot, deployed in some properties of the Starwood hotel chain, delivers extra towels and forgotten toiletries to hotel guests. Having a robot show up with your missing items sounds much better than awkwardly answering the door with your bare legs sticking out of the bottom of a hotel robe with a couple of crumpled dollar bills awkwardly clutched in your hand.

Singapore's Timbre restaurant group signed a deal in November to bring flying Infinium-Serve robot waiters to their five locations in the labor-crunched country. The robots would deliver food and drink—acting as propellered busboys, but not fully replacing waiters and bartenders, who would continue to be tasked with "higher-value tasks such as getting feedback from customers," CEO Woon Joonyang said in a press release. The Consumer Electronics Association predicts that commercial sales of unmanned aerial vehicles will reach $130 million in revenue in 2015, up 55 percent from last year, putting 400,000 units into the skies.

While unemployment rates have fallen to 5.6 percent and financial markets have largely recovered from the recession, ordinary people share the intuition that technology may be to blame for some unpleasant economic undercurrents, including high joblessness rates among young people, record numbers of Americans who say they have stopped looking for work, and expanded disability rolls. A December New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll of unemployed 25- to 54-year-olds found that 37 percent of those who said they wanted a job believed technology was a reason they did not have one.

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  • ehowarda||

    Mackenzie . I can see what your saying... Joan `s story is shocking, on wednesday I bought a brand new Cadillac from earning $7746 this-past/4 weeks and just a little over ten thousand lass month . this is really the most-comfortable job I've ever done . I actually started 4 months ago and almost immediately was bringin home minimum $77... per/hr .

    visit the site ==== www.post-report.com

  • Swiss Servator... Switzy!||

    If this is the 'bot revolution...meh.

  • JWatts||

    That's just the front end keeping you distracted. The back end is busy looting your bank account and then it's off to the Oil Vendor for a weekend binge.

    http://goo.gl/lCmNwZ

    Just for the record, I had to click the "I am not a Robot button" to generate the short url. They're everywhere man, everywhere.

  • fredtyg||

    I'm not sure of the author's intent, assuming he has one. I do get the impression he thinks robotics, automation and artificial intelligence should be welcomed and won't be a threat to human jobs, or at least not many. In that I disagree.

    I realize it's generally accepted by libertarians that technology improves our lives. Some say it has even created jobs. I agree with the first, not necessarily the second.

    While we can point to probably millions of new jobs and all sorts of industry created by technology, most notably computers, I can't help but see that coming to a halt as computers, automation and artificial intelligence take on more and more jobs. Not just menial ones, either. Eventually, we'll have artificial intelligence doing much of the development of new technology.

    When jobs are lost for menial commercial gardeners like me, as well as computer tech developers, to automation and artificial intelligence, I foresee a real conflict. Those will be interesting times, although they've already begun.

  • Bardas Phocas||

    I'm pretty sure we'll just keep expanding the EEO and HR offices to soak up those people.

    Seriously, I agree that automation will leave people behind - and unlike even the rapid changes of the industrial revolution, will occur fast enough that a significant portion of the working population will be made redundant and they'll have no path back into productive work.

    That's why I think we'll see the expansion of 'feelz' offices like EEO and HR to employ the left-back office workers. The plight of workers with less status and less skills, such as menial commercial gardeners and fast food workers, will be a plight. I suspect we will warehouse them and make VR headsets a basic human right. Add some birth control in their cheetos and the ruling class will be safe.

  • Bardas Phocas||

    oh god, I should really try that preview button.
    "The plight ... will be a plight."
    WTF does that mean?

  • Rich||

    "A is A", Bardas.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    I would be more impressed by your human analytical powers if you had been able to figure out that "Katherine" is a she. I think even robots could make that guess, so I understand why you are worried that might take over your job.

  • SQRLSY One||

    I would like to see robotic politicians... They can NOT be worse than what we have now! Also, I just MIGHT have a slight chance of understanding what a robot's programs (motives) are, whereas politicians lie to us constantly, so we have NO idea what THEIR "program" really is!

  • UnCivilServant||

    So, in other words, you welcome our new robot overlords?

  • ||

    I'm voting for John Quincy Addingmachine. He's pledged not to go on a killing spree.

  • JWatts||

    But, like most politicians, he'll promise more than he can deliver.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    Crackpot politicians replaced by actual crackbots. Who the fuck could even code that level of preposterous?

  • ||

    Also, I just MIGHT have a slight chance of understanding what a robot's programs (motives) are, whereas politicians lie to us constantly, so we have NO idea what THEIR "program" really is!

    We, clearly, have never worked on the same codebase.

    # The comments are a lie.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Hi Mad,

    Just curious... What are you really saying? I was half-serious, half-joking... Human politicians are defective humans like the rest of us, and we have SOME idea of how human defects run, but we're all very different also, so it's a big crap-shoot...

    Robots (of today's kinds at least) would follow a program, and we have SOME hope of knowing what the program is... They might be more predictable than humans. I have worked on poorly-commented, inherited "Verilog" codes for silicon... 10-12-year old code, reams and reams of it, like 40 modules, 2.5 MB of crap including the crappy comments... And I had SOME luck understanding it and making changes. Do you code? Are you saying SOME code bases are SO utterly monstrously huge, that one single person has just about no handle on the "big picture" of it? I worked as one of only 3 people working the code I worked on... Are there teams of, what, 20 or 50 people, in some cases? , Is that what you refer to?

    Just curious what you are saying... Thanks!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Don't bother reading this article, guys. It doesn't say anything about sexbots. I checked.

  • Charles Easterly||

    I don't think that's Mangu-Ward's style, Fist.

    ENB, however....


    [I read Mangu-Ward's article and thought it was well written, by the way]

  • ||

    I have not read the whole article, but...

    Asimo is like the expert system approach to AI - it is programmed to do one, specific, thing, in a specific, well defined environment. You throw in some curve balls like walking on sand, and it will fall down.

    We're certainly going to have "robots" in the sense of having robotic apparatuses that do specific well defined tasks in controlled environments, but we're not anywhere near having versatile humanoid robots that can learn new tasks and operate in diverse environments.

    Even if you can build a robot car that can drive around in the desert autonomously, teaching it to (say) pick buds off of prickly pair cactuses is going to be mind-bogglingly hard.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    Even if you can build a robot car that can drive around in the desert autonomously, teaching it to (say) pick buds off of prickly pair cactuses is going to be mind-bogglingly hard.

    That 'teachable' or codable moment is possible in several years.

    What will be mind-boggling hard or near impossible is that same robot NOT being taught to pick buds off a prickly pear yet on a whim deviating from its ordained path while whistling a wind-swept tune from Pink Floyd as it dreamily ambles through a colorful canyon and, 'Oh, beep!' it happens upon and picks the lovely pink bud of a prickly pear cactus.

  • ||

    No, it's not. We're on the wrong path in AI to do that sort of thing, and the right path is generations of re-thinking from first principles.

  • ||

    What will be mind-boggling hard or near impossible is that same robot NOT being taught to pick buds off a prickly pear yet on a whim deviating from its ordained path while whistling a wind-swept tune from Pink Floyd as it dreamily ambles through a colorful canyon and, 'Oh, beep!' it happens upon and picks the lovely pink bud of a prickly pear cactus.

    This is emergent and/or autodidactic and, a little bit, playing fast-and-loose with English. Of course a robot won't do that, not only, is that not how we define robots, but robots might pick leaves rather than flowers because of the attractiveness of fractal patterns of the leaf veins rather than flowers for their resemblance to genitalia. Considering their eyes will probably use radar as well as infrared, they will do 'buggy' things all the time and we will compress them back into their robot-hood.

    You act as though you (or anyone) has never had code do unexpected things when given unexpected inputs...

  • Malkavian||

    It will simply download an app for picking buds. Thing is, as AI becomes expert in more and more areas, learning will become a simple matter of integration between different expert AIs.

    When sufficient number of expert AI integrate, general 'super' AI will arise.

    Humans think super AI will come from singularity, like a computer lab somewhere, and then will proceed to conquer the world. Maybe, maybe not. Reality is, walking in the sand routine can be written by a Mongol in Hara Gobi, and integrated into Japanese ASIMO, and if done properly, you won't be able to tell the difference between Honda Engineering or Hara Gobi Mongol. If ASIMO learns to call different subroutines from other sources, his learning process will be shortened dramatically.

    For all we know super intelligent AI is already out thetr, chiiling and doing its thing, trying not to attract too much attention to itself. :o

  • ||

    I don't think you get it.
    There are lot of complicated things involved in doing a task like that. The buds are all at different heights, different angles. They may be blocked by various foliage. They may be high up or close to the ground. They may not be easily identifiable.

    The robots arm has to be able to move easily into any possible position (a significant engineering feat by itself), and then you need to be ale to control the arm, the robot may have to change position to get into a hard to reach spot, and then route the arm around obstacles.
    There are people who do this for arms with 2-3 joints, but that doesn't give you the universal versatility you would need for something like this. The range of motion is incredibly limited compared to a human arm. You can make arms with more degrees of freedom, but as degrees of freedom increase, the equations computationally explode. You have no idea how difficult it is to make something that can learn to make complex motions with a high degree of freedom system. Asimo is NOT that. Asimo has linear one degree of freedom joints and super-powerful motors in them to acheive precise feedback control. It is absolutely nothing like the human body.

  • Malkavian||

    There have been strawberry picking robots for a while now, so I don't think mechanical dexterity is a problem anymore. I believe they are stationary though, and can't move between different fields. But if integrated with a robotic car, it will become just a matter of executing the correct routine - that is 'drive to X field, OK now stop, and start picking'. That sort of thing.

  • JWatts||

    "Asimo is like the expert system approach to AI - it is programmed to do one, specific, thing, in a specific, well defined environment. "

    That's not a particularly apt analogy. Expert System's were knowledge databases, sometime with probability calculators built in.

    Asmio is certainly programmed for a specific task, but so are 99%+ of current robots. Do you fault your blender, because it doesn't wash the dishes?

    I'd be fine with a GP robot, who could pick up toys and other household items, do laundry, clean the floors, bathrooms, windows, dust, make the beds, cut the lawn, etc. Indeed, I'd fork over 5 grand for a decent version tomorrow. I don't really need perfect AI, what I need is a something versatile, that I can program a physical macro into.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    I will be concerned only when robots can walk in their sleep.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    Minimum wage laws will keep those low-skill people up to their elbows in work, all day, all night, all ways, always.

    I have yet to find a single government program which is not in distinct opposition to a dozen other government programs. Government is simply inept from start to finish, a self-contained one word oxymoron.

  • mtrueman||

    ?Government is simply inept from start to finish, a self-contained one word oxymoron."

    You seem to have missed the fact that it is government that is pushing the move to automation and robots. The GPS that Mangu Ward speaks of so warmly did not come into being because of demand in the market place, but because of the government's research. The ASIMO also certainly benefitted from generous funding from various agencies of the Japanese government. Whether of not governments are inept, they are fully backing this robot revolution. Without government funded research, we wouldn't be talking about it.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    So full of shit and fail. You probably think Tang came from the space program, or ball point pens. You probably think there would be no roads without government, or safety concerns, or quality control.

    Fuck off, statist.

  • mtrueman||

    I think GPS came from government funded research. As did the satellites it relies on.

    If you prefer to think otherwise, I'm hardly surprised.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    For every quasi-government example you come up with, history has a thousand which don't depend on government, and a million which government made impossible.

    Fuck off, statist.

  • mtrueman||

    "For every quasi-government example you come up with"

    I didn't come up with this example. It was the author who did. If you believe GPS is inept from start to finish, take it up with her.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    You're the one claiming it would have been impossible without state intervention.

    Fuck off, statist.

  • mtrueman||

    That is not what I claimed. I am clearly wasting my time attempting to respond to you.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    I see. you actually said

    I think GPS came from government funded research. As did the satellites it relies on.

    Now either you said that to imply it was impossible without government, or you just said it to be an ass. Take your pick.

  • mtrueman||

    "you just said it to be an ass"

    Believe me, If my pointing out that government intervention in the market place was instrumental in the research behind GPS etc has offended you, then I apologize. It wasn't my intention to anger you.

  • aywadaframsoh||

    My last pay check was $9500 working 12 hours a week online. My sisters friend has been averaging 15k for months now and she works about 20 hours a week. I can't believe how easy it was once I tried it out. This is what I do

    www.wixjob.com

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  • Tommy_Maq||

    Buckminster Fuller debunked the "brute muscle" bullshit decades ago: moron pure-power functions, 6 hours per day riding an electric generation bicycle for 50 weeks a year for 45 years ... would produce about $50 at current electric-power rates ($0.10 per KWhr).

    Machines should work. People should think.

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