Friday, December 10, 2021

Around the Horn with Robots

This is a highly jobs-related area which has had less press than I might have thought, probably due to emphasis on the pay demands, quitting, workspace-setting, and vaccination tendencies of human workers.  Here’s about all I have encountered in the past nine months.

“Do Not Be Alarmed by Wild Predictions of Robots Taking Everyone’s Jobs” – Kevin Carey, Slate, March 31st.  But be aware they will take a LOT of them, later if not sooner.  True, the 2013 Oxford study projecting that 47% of American positions were “”at risk” of computerization” did not mean anything imminent, but the possibility remains, which could massively materialize if our national will to achieve true innovations returns.  That we’re now in a forest of Help Wanted signs does not mean we won’t see skyrocketing automation by 2050, 2040, or even 2030.

“The Robot Surgeon Will See You Now” – Cade Metz, The New York Times, April 30th.  Well, not quite yet, but they have been assisting doctors there for years.  Implementation of autonomous robots in this field is unusually unpromising, since consumer resistance, especially when even small numbers of things go wrong, will be massive.  If many consider one fatal autonomous-vehicle accident worse than 30,000 annual driver-error deaths, they won’t tolerate risking delicate, high-skill processes on automata.

“Instacart enlisting robots to cut labor costs” – Jeanette Settembre, Fox Business, June 1st).  Picking grocery orders is much less emotional than cutting into heart muscles, and is effective, especially when the company’s warehouses can be designed for them.  A natural way of using technology when it not only keeps improving but, as labor costs climb, is even more valuable.  Many positions are strictly humans’ work, but this one is robots’ work.

“Elon Musk introduces humanoid robot prototype at Tesla AI Day” – Ken Martin, Fox Business, August 19th.  Unclear how these devices, except for looking more like humans (“standing” 5’8” “tall”), would be anything meaningfully new.  Robots already “eliminate dangerous, repetitive, boring tasks” and “carry out the work people don’t like to do” (or, more properly, carry out the work people’s companies don’t want them to do).  Sorry, Elon, but this one, unless Martin missed something huge, was a yawner.

“Workplace automation bots gain clout amid COVID-19 pandemic” – Angus Loten, Fox Business, September 24th.  The pandemic should have started many efforts to provide them, which may take a while to produce market-ready product.  This piece is about “robotic process automation,” covering the likes of “processing payroll data or expense reports and fielding call-center queries.”  Interesting to see how the latter would go over, even at the lowest, Tier 1, level of complexity. 

“Alec Ross:  COVID unleashes robots – and the hit on America’s workforce will be enormous” – Alec Ross, Fox News, October 10th.  The author looked in on a pharmaceutical-packaging plant “without human beings on the factory floor,” although workers did control the robots remotely.  More and more of this is on the way, as before pushed by higher pay levels.

“Desperate for Workers, Restaurants Turn to Robots” – Janet Morrissey, The New York Times, October 19th.  And in the next two years, it will mushroom.  Ones perhaps already at eateries near you include the Servi, which “uses cameras and laser sensors to carry plates of food from the kitchen to tables in the dining room” but not directly to customers; the Flippy, which as you might think can “fry fast food, like French fries and chicken wings“; Peanut, which covers every restaurant employee’s favorite detail by cleaning bathrooms; Whiz, “which vacuums floors,”; and silicon bartenders.  These mechanical employees have had their share of spectacular mishaps, leading some to be “fired” – just like their predecessors.

“Robots navigate the streets to deliver food” – Fox Business, November 2nd.  More on automated edibles distribution, by “hundreds of little robots – knee-high and able to hold around four large pizzas” are at work around American and British colleges and elsewhere.  One company, Starship Technologies, has reached two million deliveries, despite the devices being “slow,” “inflexible,” and needing to “recharge regularly.”  They’re not for every area, as some cities “aren’t welcoming them,” but are piling up a history now.

“Can We Make Our Robots Less Biased Than We Are?” – David Berreby, The New York Times, November 22nd.  That gets us to the, to say the least, uncomfortable issue of what we should do when artificial intelligence and related systems conclude that people of all groups are not identically likely to have certain proclivities or characteristics.  Sometimes such machine knowledge comes from poor programming, but we are rapidly reaching a time, if we aren’t there already, when systems we know are logically flawless have discovered, without any input from humans biased or otherwise, differences that offend people with certain political sensitivities.  Soon, surely by the end of this decade, we will need to at least debate whether to accept such algorithm components or to somehow remove them from artificially intelligent entities.  Not deciding on a course of action will cost us increasingly dearly.  I suspect that this matter will give us some seriously unpleasant times. 

Overall, where are we with robots?  We will find out within a few more years, when their quality, scope, and number available have all multiplied.  That is what they will do – and they will be even harder for companies to resist.  Then we will not be alarmed, but rather quickly accepting, of robots taking over many more jobs.  We cannot avoid that forever.

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