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Rich's Robot Musings

March 30, 2017 Have the economics changed on tariffs?

Tariffs on imported goods have been in the news lately. Traditional economics says that tariffs are bad because less-expensive imported goods are good for consumers. Goods cost less so people can buy more. It is a simple equation, but I wonder if automation is changing the calculus? Just about all experts in automation agree that increasing unemployment of humans is inevitable and soon (if not already) there wonít be enough jobs for everyone that wants one. I believe global trade and automation have already made jobs across the world a zero-sum game. That is, a job gained in one country necessarily means a job lost in another country. In the United States, there is some basic level of support given to people regardless of whether they are employed. We can argue about the quality of the support, but no one can say that it is free. The people that are employed must pay for the support. If we take it as a given that jobs have become a zero-sum game, then every imported manufactured good has necessarily caused job loss in this country. Since jobs lost in this way will cost this country money because we must support the unemployed, why doesnít it make sense to tax the imported items at the border? That way the people considering buying the imported items will see more of the true cost of the item. If we donít make the cost of imported items reflect their true cost, arenít we in fact subsidizing imported manufactured goods through our welfare system? I would love to hear readerís thoughts on this.

September 17, 2016 Some geeky robotics stuff

I got an email the other day from an undergraduate student asking about a control interface for a micro-manipulator. They are currently using an "RC style" joystick with the twist controlling z-axis motion and up-down/back-forth controlling x and y. It springs back to neutral when no force is applied. Here is how I answered.

Dear Student: I would call what you are working on a Human Machine Interface (HMI). I bet there's a visual component (computer screen, VR goggles, etc.) along with the hand controller part. The hand controller part is also often called the manual controller. 

Frankly, if you only need to control X, Y and Z it's going to be tough to beat a traditional joystick like you already have. My experience is that humans are most precise using the small muscles of their hands and fingers, and that's the scale of a traditional joystick. Some force feedback might be helpful. You could experiment with that, but I don't recommend a manual controller that is at the scale of whole arm or body motion to control a micro manipulator.

If you are going to try to design a force feedback manual controller, it needs to be very high bandwidth. The structure needs to be very light, there needs to be no backlash and the actuators need to be backdrivable. The Phantom haptic device http://www.dentsable.com/haptic-phantom-omni.htm is a good example of a design that follows these principles and is at the scale of small movements of the hands and fingers. You could look at this design and learn from it.

May 5, 2016 Things don't seem to be changing very fast.

I got an email the other day asking if I would contribute to an online story about how different things would be in 2020 "if Moore's law continues to hold true." When I replied that 2020 was only 3.5 years away and Moore doesn't believe his law is holding true anymore, there was no real response. I didn't participate in this story, but it might be fun to read if it does get written. Who doesn't like a science fantasy story?

Moore's law specifically speaks to the density of transistors on an integrated circuit, but often is applied to all things computer. This includes desktop and notebook computers, of course, but also tablets, smart phones, servers, wired and wireless networks, etc. Regardless of whether Moore's law holds true, this technology in 2020 is not going to be much different than it is now in 2016. To me, it is not changing very fast any more. Let's take a look at how it changed between 2012 and 2016. The iPhone 6s is out now, but the iPhone 7 should come out later this year. The iPhone 5 came out in 2012. Sure the iPhone 7 will be better than the iPhone 5, but going from an iPhone 5 to an iPhone 7 isn't going to change anyone's life. The iPhone 9 will likely come out in 2020. Sure it will be better than my iPhone 6s. I hope I can keep my 6s running until 2020. Then I'll get an iPhone 9, but making the move is not going to change my life. Not one bit. I can make the same case with notebook computers, tablet computers and just about every other computing-type technology I can think of. 5G wireless should be rolled-out by 2020. That will be nice, but not that different. The extra bandwidth will just get filled up with ads or other digital debris. Sure, self-driving cars are going to be huge and a great benefit, but that's not going to happen in 2020. I hope to see it in my life time. That might be another 35 years - 2051. As great as they will be, self-driving cars are really just a part of the computer revolution. The computer revolution is very much a continuation of the semiconductor revolution and all experts I am aware of agree that the semiconductor revolution is very long in the tooth.

To me the fundamental questions are, what will replace semiconductor technology and when will that happen? Until something replaces the semiconductors in computing devices, I believe we will continue to see incremental advances in computing applications, but they will come more slowly  than they have since the middle of last century when the first transistors were demonstrated. It is much more fun to pretend otherwise, but I just don't see it.

September 20, 2015 Where are all the robots?

A good friend of mine sent me this link to an article about robotics and wrote, "Iím sure this article is common knowledge to you...Ē Sadly, this is common knowledge to me because it reminds me of how little progress has been made in the robot part of robotics over the thirty years since I started in the field as a grad student. Certainly, the automation and machinery part of robotics has made great strides, but as Iíve written before, thereís more to a robot than automation and machinery. This article is about one of the best robots in the world and, to quote from the article, ďThe contraption weighs 407 pounds and is powerful enough to bench-press 150 pounds. Itís hazardous for humans to be around.Ē That strength to weight ratio is terrible and the contraption is hazardous for humans to be around? That is pretty much exactly where we were thirty years ago. This article starts by listing some of the tasks from the 2015 Darpa Robotics Challenge finals. This competition showcased the best robots in the world. Each of these robots has been under development for at least three years with many millions of dollars in funding per robot. The tasks the robots faced in the challenge were really quite modest. They included walking up a flight of stairs, turning a knob, flipping a switch, and the like. Conceptually these tasks are much simpler than the tasks a fruit fly faces every day. Most of the robots couldnít complete the tasks, but two of them did. Take a look at the video on YouTube. The robots donít look much like humans. They certainly donít show any type of higher-level thinking. As Iíve written before and unlike a lot of people, I donít believe robots based on digital computers will ever approach human intelligence. The article above also talks about how much money is currently being invested in robotics by big players that have a lot of money to invest - Google and Uber being two discussed in the article. I have no doubt that this influx of money will generate even more amazing automation and machinery, but I also have no doubt that these robots will never approach human intelligence.

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.

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