02.28.13

Robot series 6: robot redux

Posted in Society at 9:52 by RjZ

A couple of readers offered some excellent insights on my final robot economy post.

Will robots really be able to automate everything?

Well, not everything, but it is already remarkable how many craftsman quality tasks can be broken down and chunked into menial subtask. My point is that even if there is a little labor left, it won’t change that this automation will have tremendous impact.

There are plenty of jobs remaining: designing, marketing, selling, finance.

That’s heartening. I agree and frankly, I over simplified. Still, these are all knowledge worker jobs and that’s fine, but isn’t it possible that a great many people just aren’t cut out for any of those jobs? Even if, as we have seen historically, the amount of free time simply gets redistributed, at some point there will be a great inequality; the knowledge workers will still have to work and the laborers won’t have any work. I wonder how we will deal with this problem.

The market system will accommodate for this, after all, if there are fewer consumers out there, then there is little justification to keep investing in robotics; especially after the costs of welfare.

The problem our current system has, then, is that there is little connection between social costs and business costs. In other words, if my business puts people out of work and the government starts paying for them. Well, they still have money to by my goods and services and I win. There are many ways to address this disconnect ranging from ending welfare to forcing businesses to pay for it, but as it currently stands, market forces will only encourage widespread automation.

Won’t useful robots have AI?

I don’t see why that will be necessary for much of the change I’ve proposed. AI still requires invention, probably lots of it. That is why I believe it could be far off (it might not be…that’s just it, invention is unpredictable). AI throws a serious ethical wrench in the works. Sentient robots, it can be argued, ought not be used as slaves. (What if they’re programmed to like the work? hard stuff!)

It doesn’t matter though. A tremendous amount of work can be accomplished by robots with simple routines and nature is already our model for this. Just the flight of an insect is tremendously complicated and is accomplished with a mere 100,000 neurons. Yet, we fear little about offending the sentience of a fly when we swat one. To suggest that an ethically difficult amount of intelligence will be required for robots to accomplish complex tasks is to ignore how much can be done by clever programmers, or even simple nature.

The only constant is change.

I hoped to bring this issue up so that we would start thinking about it now, and perhaps notice this trend as it starts to occur. However, I agree, we’ll all work through this; especially if we recognize that the way things are, sure isn’t going to be the way things will be in the future. Robots are just one of many perturbations to the status quo…not to mention all those unpredictable inventions!

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02.27.13

Robot Series 5: Sweeping change

Posted in Society at 12:04 by RjZ

What would you do if you never had to work? What if no one works? It is entirely conceivable that at some point in the not so distant future there will be absolutely no labor for humans to do.

Robots, equipped with 3D vision, can automate more than just production and maid service. They will be able to take over farming, food service and health care. It’s a ways off because every problem from harvesting wheat to washing dishes will take some serious engineering effort to solve, but none of it is necessarily the stuff of science fiction; it’s more a matter of how to justify all that effort it takes to design. (One could make a dishwashing robot with today’s technology, but it would take so much time and effort to solve all the simple little problems that no one has stepped up the challenge. Vacuuming yes, you still have to load your own dishwasher). Still, dishwashing robots are unlike quantum computers or artificial intelligence. No new developments need to take place to make one; we already know what we need to know. And, if you can make a dishwashing robot, you can make another one that repairs it and keeps the rest of the robots running.

Already we have an idea how automation effects society and our understanding of economics. In the last hundred years humans have migrated away from farms and into cities, while farms have increased production for us all (admittedly, we may not be better off, but perhaps it will take some adjustment. I bet we’ll still have far fewer farmers per capita). This reduction of labor has dramatically increased free-time for us all and it is thanks to many forms of automation (and a large dose of cheap energy from petroleum).

Communism may have been invented as a response to the abuses of labor, (another name for workers—people), by those with access to capital. But what are the abuses when the labor in question is not sentient and will gladly work, 24 hours per day, in whatever conditions it takes to get the job done? Robots won’t complain about hot factories or cold ones and they’ll never ask for vacations or better health care. Communism may be a bad word for many, but avoiding abuses isn’t a terrible goal.

Slavery ended not only because human came to realize it was bad to treat fellow humans in this way, but also because it is cheaper to send workers home with a pay check then to feed them, care for them, and house them. In the robot economy, as long as these new servants have no artificial intelligence, there is no moral dilemma, and no care and feeding (beyond regular maintenance). Cheap labor without the suffering.

What about all those folks who actually work for living? People who primarily trade their labor for money to buy goods and services they desire will have little of value to offer when robots are doing all the work. Unfortunately, for the capitalists filling automated warehouses with products, they won’t be able to sell them without able customers. What will they do if laborers have no value and no money?

What does all this leave for you? Often when you newly meet someone one of the first questions asked is: “What do you do?” In the future, that question might seem a bit silly. There may well be room for artists, poets, and musicians. There will be some opportunity to think of new ideas, innovations and applications of the technology around us, but labor will be by choice alone, like artisan cheese and Amish furniture. Society’s current plan is to distribute all the free time to as many as possible, but things might not be so easy to manage when scientists, artists, and the Amish are busy, while the rest of us are watching tv (created by the artists).

From compliant robots to automated nurses, the future of robotics isn’t so far off any more. The biggest hurdles to a labor free society are really only the time it takes to build and design all these new devices and perhaps the energy to power them (although, we’ll likely save enough on heating factories and driving to work that, at least in the short term, it’s a wash). The robot economy is another type of singularity; everything changes and it’s difficult to predict just how things look when there is no labor for anyone.

Pixar’s Wall-E offered one potential future of a world where robots do absolutely everything: humans become permanent couch potatoes. Is that it, or do you have a better idea what will happen? Let me know in the comments.

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02.14.13

Robot series 4: An engineering problem

Posted in Society at 15:50 by RjZ

It may be easy to sort through a database to find the things you want or need to complete a project, but the logistics of bringing it all together isn’t trivial. We already enjoy world-wide, point to point, next-day shipment. Automated warehouses are the next critical step in moving things around easily and cheaply. Companies like Amazon have giant warehouses with thousands and thousands of different products. Getting to them can be like finding the needle in a haystack, but an automated forklift with keen, 3D capable vision, can scan kilometers of shelves, select the right products, and package them in a custom box for shipping.

But why find or ship anything when you can make it at home? 3D printers have been around for more than two decades, and now they’re going mainstream. Just don’t think of them as printers; think of them as Star Trek replicators. Today, they print with plastic or metal, but the technology is being adapted to print with nearly every conceivable material from textiles to food. 3D data capture technology will turn printers into 3D copiers. Need a spare widget? Snap a 3D picture and print yourself one. What effects will these developments have on society? Nearly all these developments aren’t the stuff of sci-fi. They’re more or less around right now.

Artificial Intelligence has been promised for decades and while we’ve seen the brute force mental achievement of Deep Blue, the chess computer that beat human masters, or the vast, encyclopedic knowledge of Jeopardy winning Watson and its ability to understand natural language questions, AI remains a tough problem.

We’ve been promised nano machines that will revolutionize everything from materials to health care (or turn everything into grey goo) and we’ve been expecting quantum and integrated optical computers which should be powerful enough to finally make artificial intelligence a reality, well, maybe.

Edison wasn't the only one to invent the lightbulb. It was inevitable.

Unfortunately, few developments have come from all these ideas even after so much effort. It’s been no waste of time, but these problems are extremely difficult. Robots and 3D vision aren’t like that. They aren’t a matter of invention and discovery, they are a matter of engineering. Where discovery resists time-tables and prediction, often occurring in fits, starts, or flashes of insight; engineering comes from mental effort, trial and error, and ingenuity. Business can be built on engineering because it’s reliable. Engineering results can be forecasted with some success. It isn’t easy to create brand new things from unrelated parts, but the goal is often in sight.

Many “inventions” in the past were really just innovations of engineering. The light bulb was nearly simultaneously invented by Joseph Swan, Hiram Stevens Maxim, and Thomas Edison. The radio, telephone, television, and dozens of other inventions have all been developed by multiple people nearly simultaneously. Each of these came into being because everything necessary to produce them had finally been discovered, and was essentially waiting for incredible engineers to put them all together. They were, so to speak, inevitable.

The promise of robotics, 3D machine vision and printing are inevitable too. How will they change the way we live? The impact of inexpensive automation, automated warehouses, 3D copiers, and safe robot assistants will be broader than just a few more gadgets. They will change economics, political power, and even how we value ourselves. Even if the Singularity doesn’t come in our lifetimes, everything we need for sweeping change is already out there, just waiting for some clever folks to put the pieces it together. No invention required.

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02.06.13

Robot series 3: Stuck in flatland

Posted in Society at 14:56 by RjZ

Google has taken street view off-road. Teams of (lucky) engineers are walking around national parks and wild places like the Grand Canyon carrying a backpack full of cameras and GPS devices. They’re working towards Google’s mission of organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful. Amazing stuff; you can see a demo here.

What’s missing from all this work is the third dimension. Of course, street view info is mapped onto rough 3D contours, but generally, the information being collected is 2D. For most things, that’s just fine. Humans experience much of the world in only two dimensions because everything beyond a dozen meters or so is essentially two dimensional. Mapping the world with street view is well-served with 2D information, but it’s obviously not the whole story.

Try this. Imagine wearing a camera that records everything you see throughout the day and uploads this information to a cloud-based server. Sometime later, you realize you’ve misplaced your sunglasses. What if you could search through all that stored information, find a copy of your sunglasses from a time when you knew you had them and then have the server search for the last place they were seen? Repeat for keys, where you parked your car…even for people you’ve met…what was his name again?

Everything necessary to do this already exists today just waiting for someone to bring it all together (and, make a business out of it to pay for it….) Critical though, is that 2D data alone make this problem much more difficult than it should be. For example, a 2D system can’t tell the difference between your mom, and a picture of your mom. Storing 3D information can actually end up easing bandwidth problems, and certainly the search problems that need to be solved before this idea becomes a reality. A single 3D model of mom’s face helps the system to identify her, even from her profile and not just her portrait. The sunglasses can be spotted lying on the counter face up or face down.

In Japan, an aging populace has been wondering who will take care of them as they enter their later years. The Japanese government has been heavily promoting robot assistants as a potential solution. The recent film Robot and Frank took a charming look at what these future relationships might be like; but for Robot to be able walk around, do the dishes, and cook (not to mention, learn to pick locks…) classic 2D machine vision won’t be enough. Not convinced? Check out these convincing anamorphic illusions and you’ll be convinced of some of the limitations of 2D vision!

3D adds much more than just image acquisition. It allows security cameras to match a persons captured face with a mug shot even if the angle shot is completely different. 3D motion capture can enable computers read sign language or lips or be used as an interface that requires no buttons or touching whatsoever. Machine vision algorithms, amazing as they are, are pretty simple today. More information makes them more powerful and emerging, inexpensive, 3D capture technologies provide that valuable detail. From industrial bin and picking, 3D copiers (a natural extension to 3D printers like Makerbot that already exist today) to more personal applications, compact, inexpensive, and fast, 3D data capture is just one more piece of the modern robotics puzzle.

[Disclaimer: the company I work for, Chiaro Technologies is developing just this sort of inexpensive, fast, accurate, 3D capture technology.]

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