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Rich's Robot Musings

July 29, 2014 Robots just keep coming for our jobs

I've written many times that raising the minimum wage is just going to accelerate the deployment of robotics and automation to eliminate these jobs. I think the jobs in the fast food industry are especially vulnerable. Because I work in robotics and automation I often think of the social implications of this. What will happen when the jobs flipping hamburgers are all gone? How will that teenager learn a work ethic and find a stepping stone to something better? To jobs flipping hamburgers, I say good riddance. That teenager would do a lot better spending their time studying their schoolwork. The same goes for jobs packing boxes, kitting parts, unloading machines, picking parts off a conveyor belt, etc. Just preserving busy work for minimum wage is a loser's game and raising the minimum wage is just going to end the game more quickly.

But how about jobs like taking care of elderly people? Here's an article in the NY Times that talks about what people in robotics have been talking about for a long time - that social robots in the home are going to be caregivers for the elderly. I was being interviewed on a radio show several years ago on this very subject and all I could express is "why would we want to deploy robots for this?" I had one of the worst headaches I've ever had after that interview. I can't think of anything worse for robots to do. There's an emotional aspect to this kind of work that robots will never be able to fill and robotics researchers who suggest otherwise are just plain wrong. Another engineer on the show represented the opinion that there was a shortage of people to do this kind of work. That's why we needed to deploy robots. The truth to this statement is that there is a shortage of people willing to do this kind of work for the money we are currently willing to pay for it.

Of course there is some amount of pay where Americans would be willing to do this kind of work. The elderly, however, are often on very tight budgets and don't have the money to pay for it. People on the left side of the political spectrum, have written about this issue and suggested that the answer is government subsidized home care for the elderly. I very rarely support government subsidies. This includes corporate welfare and tax breaks for the wealthy. I don't think subsidies help anyone. At the lower end of the income spectrum, they disincentivize working, At the higher end of the income spectrum, they just contribute to income inequality. Over the last ten years the government has dumped more borrowed money into the economy than in the combined history of the United States and income inequality has gotten vastly worse.

As for subsidized home care for the elderly, I guess in this case we don't have to worry about disincentivizing the elderly. It's not like they would run out and get jobs if it wasn't for the subsidized caregivers. We already are subsidizing health care and this is very much a health care issue. On the conservative side of the political coin is the position that this is the responsibility of family, church and charitable organizations. This was a reasonable approach when people didn't live so long, and I think it is still a reasonable approach for other social issues, but now care giving for the elderly is just too much for this social network to handle.

Though the use of robots as caregivers for the elderly is an interesting social and political topic, it is also a hypothetical one. As I've written many times before, robots based on digital computers are never going to remotely approach human intelligence and human intelligence is required to replace people in caring for the elderly, whether in their homes or in group homes. Sure there will be devices like glorified smart phones and mechanical assist devices that will help, but there won't be robots with human-like intelligence.

July 17, 2014 Super job opportunity for a Lead Robotics Engineer

General: Infratek is a new technological start-up and university spin-off company focused on providing innova

innovative, full-spectrum infrastructure management systems. We innovate, integrate, and manufacture autonomous robots, cutting-edge non-destructive evaluation technologies, and software systems that assess and maintain critical infrastructure, to include bridges, roadways, and structures. Having recently been awarded funding, we are hiring engineers to be part of our first commercial launch, bringing research prototypes into industrialized products. As the Lead Robotics Engineer, you will be a key leader of the team.

Duties and Responsibilities:
·Overall responsible for the functional design and technical development of autonomous mobile robotic systems, providing expertise and leadership to the mechanical, electrical, software, and robotics engineers
·Provide system-level guidance on the overall functionality and development of robotic systems, ensuring that validation of customer requirements and verification of system performance parameters
·Lead and facilitate initial planning, concept development, and milestone design reviews
·Assist with hiring of candidates and staff by vetting select resumes and applications and conducting interviews
·Effectively utilize professional or academic networks

Required Skills and Experience:
·Doctorate or Master degree in Computer Science, Computer Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering or related discipline
·At least 5 years of experience in the design and development of autonomous systems, robotics systems, and human-robot interfaces
·Industry or research work with the full life cycle of robot development, from concept generation to design and manufacture
·Significant experience related to systems architecture, design, and system integration
·Familiarity with mechanical and electrical design of robotic systems
·Familiarity with core artificial intelligence concepts to include navigation, path planning, sensor fusion, and GUIs

Preferred Skills and Experience:
·Direct experience with autonomous, mobile, “rover-type” robotics
·Direct experience with the full product development lifecycle of robots, from design to delivery
·Experience or familiarity with non-destructive evaluation technology or the integration of robotic systems with infrastructure inspection sensor

Contact Colin O'Neill 856-532-2866 with inquiries.

June 7, 2014 Will robots take over the world?

Over the years I’ve answered hundreds of email questions from young and old alike. Today I got one that asked if robots fart and another that asked if I thought robots would take over the world. As you might guess, these came from the younger side of the age spectrum. I answer their questions below, but first I have to define what the word “robot” means to me. It’s a bit different than the common definition.

The word Robot comes from a play called “Rossum’s Universal Robots” by the Czech playwright Karel Capek. It premiered in 1921 and became very popular in its day. The play explored what has become a familiar theme in science fiction: humans playing God by creating synthetic humans (robots) in their own image. These robots could be enslaved without guilt because they possessed no souls. Eventually Capek’s robots grew resentful of their enslavement, rose up against humans and destroyed the human race. Though Capek adapted the word robot from the Czech word “robota” meaning forced labor (such as a serf would be forced to perform on the King’s land), the idea of robots is much older.

The notion of human-like creatures created by humans can be traced back to the word Golem that appears in the Old Testament. I’m not going to pretend to understand ancient Hebrew, so I can’t interpret what that word means in the context of the Old Testament, but over the last thousand years the legend of the Golem evolved. The basic story is that a Rabbi or similar holy person can form a human-like shape out of clay. After speaking or writing the appropriate incantations, the Golem would become animated and serve the Rabbi, typically by performing dangerous tasks or protecting the village against attack. Of course sometimes the Golem would get out of control and turn on its makers. Sound familiar? Frankenstein anyone? Terminator?

These days the word robot is applied to just about any remote controlled or automatic system that does some sort of physical task. The word robot is even applied to non-physical software constructs that roam around on the internet (think search engine robots). I personally thank Joe Engelberger for starting this. In the 1950’s Joe founded Unimation, Inc. which billed itself as the world’s first industrial robotics company. They sold their first “robot” to General Motors in the early 1960’s. This was an automated piece of manufacturing equipment that unloaded hot dies in the factory. To me, that’s no robot. That’s an automated piece of manufacturing equipment, but the name sounded sexy and Unimation was fairly successful.
Finally, we get to my definition of a robot so we can begin answering the questions that started this essay. To me a robot has to be of the same size and shape as a human. That’s what Capek intended when he coined the word. Capek’s robots were so similar to humans that they could be mistaken for humans. In my opinion, if it’s not human-like, it’s not a robot. Interestingly, Capek’s robots were not mechanical creatures, but rather were biological beings that were created in a lab and ran on chemical reactions. Capek doesn’t discuss the robots eating or what they might have eaten, but I assume being biological creations they must have eaten some sort of food. Since they were biological, ate food and ran on chemical reactions; Capek’s robots likely would have suffered from the same residual gaseous emissions that mammals do. That answers one of these kid's question.

Now we get to the question of whether robots will take over the world. For starters, I don’t believe any robots in the true sense of Capek have been created, yet. Furthermore, I don’t think the robotic machines being designed today will take over the world any time soon. And by soon, I mean not in this century and not in the next. Here’s why I believe that to be true.

People who do say we’ll have robotic machines with brains as powerful as humans generally base their argument on Moore’s law. Moore’s law says that the number of transistors on a computer processor doubles every two years. I have two issues with this line of reasoning. First, there is no guarantee that Moore’s law will continue to hold. It’s not a real law, like the law of gravity. It’s just based on an observation Intel’s co-founder, Gordon Moore, made a long time ago. Second, the interconnections in human brains are much more complex than binary computer connections. The connections in human brains have variable levels, are electro-chemical and involve firing rates. This makes them more like analog signals than digital signals. If we assume the resolution of a connection in a human brain is 10 bits and use a common estimate of 100 trillion connections in a human brain, then we would need a digital computer with ten to the power of ninety transistors! Even if Moore’s law did hold true, it predicts the Sun will burn out before we have a digital computer with the power of a human brain. Basically there is no path from digital computers to the complexity of the human brain.

I don’t know if they will take over the world, but we are probably a lot closer to robots of the kind envisioned by Capek than most people think. I’m talking about cloning. Humans have cloned sheep, cats, dogs, pigs, deer, horses and bulls. It’s only a matter of time before we are able to clone humans. How about the little clone that will be created to provide an organ to replace a child’s damaged liver so the child can live? Is that little clone human? Is it a robot? What if a scientist can clone a person, but render the clone somehow inferior? Maybe it can’t talk, or maybe it can’t comprehend fear or pain? Will that clone have a soul? Will it have any kind of rights or protections? Would it be OK to create an army of clones to fight our wars for us? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I’m sure we are going to be dealing with them, and likely in my children’s lifetime. 

May 17, 2014 Raising minimum wage will promote robotics

I was browsing around the internet and came upon this article with the title, "Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man." I realize it's old (from 2009), but the topic still comes up all the time. As I've written before, digital computers are never going to outsmart humans. What about Watson winning Jeopardy you say? Watson is just a huge computer search engine with speech recognition built in. It's true that Jeopardy questions are often nuanced and contain subtle hints, but when the computer has encyclopedic knowledge, the nuance and subtleties don’t matter. The computer just looks up the answers. As I read the article, I also noticed that the headline was in conflict with the body of the article. Here is what is in the article, "The researchers — leading computer scientists, artificial intelligence researchers and roboticists who met at the Asilomar Conference Grounds on Monterey Bay in California — generally discounted the possibility of highly centralized superintelligences." Here's another line from the article, "The researchers also discussed possible threats to human jobs, like self-driving cars, software-based personal assistants and service robots in the home." Hello? Do we really need scientists to tell us that automation is going to take human jobs? Seen a lot of bank tellers lately? How about those folks that take your ticket when you leave the parking garage? I'm pretty sure most of those jobs have been lost to automation. How about switch board operators? Do you even know what those are? At one time there were 350,000 people getting paid to do that job. Now there are none. This is my concern with raising the minimum wage. The higher the minimum wage goes, the faster these low-level jobs will be lost to automation. I'm all for people earning a wage they can live on, but the Federal government stepping in and artificially raising the minimum is, as usual, going to have the opposite of the intended effect. It will just accelerate the loss of these minimum wage jobs to automation. There will be one-tenth the number of people working at a McDonalds. It will be just a few folks to service the machines in the kitchen and one person in front helping the people who can't figure out how to use the touch screen to order their food.

May 5, 2014 Students explore human-robot interactions

I just read a column about and undergraduate course at Cornell on human-robot interactions. I didn’t know there were undergraduate courses specifically addressing human-robot interactions, but I’m not surprised. The author writes that the field is so new that there aren’t even textbooks on it yet. I don’t know if that is true or not, but the field is certainly not new. It’s been around since the 1970’s and has focused primarily on safety of personnel working in the same locations as robots. As more and more automation is applied in the consumer market this study will move towards “lay people” that encounter robotics and automation in their daily lives. I’m sure safety will still be an important part of that study, but how to make the interaction “natural” for humans will also be a big part of it.

That leads me to a question I get by email all of the time, “what subjects should I study if I want to work with robots when I grow up?” The obvious answer would be to study math and science, but that’s rarely the answer I give. I think that students should study what they love and are best at. Then they can look for career fields where they can apply themselves. For example, the lead protagonist in Asimov’s “I, Robot” series is Susan Calvin, a robot psychologist. If psychology is your thing and you want to work in robotics, study psychology and figure out how to apply it to robotics and automation. When I was growing up I loved to take things apart, see how they worked, and then try to rebuild them so they would be better than they were before. That naturally led me to study engineering and I’ve been very happy with that choice, but engineering is not for everyone and it shouldn't be forced on anyone. That's not the way to be happy and successful in life.

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