Friday, 10 June 2016
Smart Machines, Machined Humans: Quandries and Conundrums
My inbox presented an article about new generations of robots appearing in all kinds of public places, not just in industrial settings. The story was published by an online magazine put out by a major university and research center that is leading the development of our new smart world. This organization is working very hard to make sure that 'intelligence in every machine' replaces 'a chicken in every pot' as the mantra for economic well being.
I'm talking about the MIT Technology Review site called The Daily. Its story was about new lines of robots now working in hotels and shopping malls and on the street. On the street, some robots help with security, and package delivery. In the malls, some do inventory and restock shelves-- allegedly much better than humans can do it. In certain hotels-- the upscale kind that offer robes in the closets -- little robots will bring you whatever you want that is not found in the in-room fridge. These robots are allegedly smart enough to navigate across crowded lobbies, to tell the elevator system which floor they want, and to zip down the right hall to the right door. They return to the main lobby and plug themselves in on their own.
These machines are specifically designed to appear non-threatening to the humans who encounter them. They do not look like the Terminator. They are more along the lines of R2D2. The hotel robot has a little locked door hiding an internal shelf where a belly would be, if it had a belly, a place to carry whatever the guest has asked for. So cute!
Somehow, scrolling here and there, I found myself linked to a YouTube video of Google's self driving car, described as a typical representative of this harmless look in smart machines. The video shows a diverse range of non-engineer type people going for test rides. The car has no steering wheel, which would terrify me: how would you take over and drive that car if something goes wrong? It looks like a really comfortable version of a golf cart with a curved roof. Who could fear a golf cart? A child can drive a golf cart! In the video, a boy gets into the car to take a ride with his mother. Where's the danger if a mother willingly lets her young son take a ride? Everyone exudes pleasure at the fun of it all, especially the man who cannot drive because he's infirm, and the older woman who no longer fears driving because the car does it for her. These people are identified only by first name so we can't look them up on Facebook and ask for more information.
The story and the video convey an unstated message: who could possibly be afraid of smart machines, machines that are much better than humans at doing certain tasks?
The answer is: jobless bellboys, taxi drivers with no future, not even with Uber, delivery persons with no income, sales clerks filing their unemployment claims. Such folks are not featured in these stories or videos.
Can machines do these jobs better than humans?
I had an aunt and uncle and a cousin who were in the ladies clothing business. They are gone now, but that doesn't mean I can't hear them hooting their derision at the very idea that a machine could replace one of their very well trained sales clerks, women who knew their customers, provided good taste for those who lacked it, knew exactly what was in stock or out of stock at all times, and more to the point, boosted their customers' confidence whenever they made a purchase ( "It's you dear, simply you!" my Aunt would purr.) Can you picture a cutie-pie of a machine providing the same kind of service?
There is a single woman I know who supports her boys by cleaning house. She also works as an assistant to a person too ill with MS to care for herself. She hopes to build a business dispatching other people to provide similar services to those in need. I cannot bring myself to tell her that such a business has at best a twenty year time horizon, because machines will do many of these tasks much more cheaply than people. Not better, just cheaper. Her company might have a future if she rents out robots, but how would a single mother raise the capital for that?
These stories start in PR departments, then appear online, then find their way into newspapers as if they are real journalism. They are aimed at dampening fear instead of raising questions about what happens when jobs disappear due to the arrival of smart machines that can do them for less. Replacing humans with cheaper machines is what economists call improving productivity. Improving productivity is considered a Good Thing in all capitalist economies.
When measured against the people who will lose their jobs, it all sounds bad.
But is it?
Among the stories circulating this week (ending up in the UK's Daily Mail) was one about a new company called Superflex, a spin-off from SRI, formerly called Stanford Research Institute. Many years ago I interviewed researchers working at SRI who were studying what they called Remote Viewing -- telepathy. SRI has always been an open-minded research house. It resides in Menlo Park, the center of Silicon Valley. It was there long before Apple, Google, etc. began to make the world smart. SRI is a non profit that does contract research and development for companies and for governments. Specifically it has done a lot of work for DARPA, who, as I have written before, has been challenging companies to develop an exoskeleton that a soldier can strap on his body to help him carry his burdens over rough terrain. Superflex has apparently developed a soft and smart exoskeleton that a person can wear over their clothing. It will learn quickly how a person walks naturally and provide a jolt of power to help out at appropriate times. This suit -- this smart machine -- can aide people who are elderly, infirm, unable to walk because of injury or disability, or unable to climb stairs because their leg muscles just won't do the job any more. Their target market is not a soldier, but people who suffer the indignity of having to use a walker or even a wheelchair.
Right now, it takes five minutes for a trained person to get into this suit.
They are aiming for two minutes.
Right now, less flexible exoskeletons cost about $40,000 and aren't pretty. Superflex want its suit to be cheap enough that anyone can buy it.
My mother is in a wheelchair.
My husband is having gait issues.
Mother mother's infirmity provides employment to several people who come to her suite every day to help her shower, dress, get to her meals, get to bed.
If a soft, inexpensive, lightweight, comfortable exoskeleton becomes available, one that is smart enough to carry her where she needs to go, some of those people will be out of work.
And that's the quandary for all of us trying to negotiate this unfolding smart world. Do we owe loyalty to the people who currently make their livings from helping others? Do we keep them employed and not buy a suit that will give independence back to those we love?
Is anyone smart enough to juggle the ethical conundrums that these smart machines are putting in front of us?
Maybe you are.