Category Archives: Human Robots
Fear of job loss to automation is growing, with each announcement of exciting technological progress generating a backlash from those who could end up unemployed because of it. Amazon Go is eliminating the need for cashiers. Self-driving vehicles won’t need truckers and cabbies at their wheels. Artificial intelligence is beginning to diagnose disease, perform surgery, and even write films and articles.
No job is safe forever, and we’re constantly being reminded of it, with little to no reassurance about what we’ll all do when computers and robots are running the world.
A report released last week by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) offers some reprieve, bringing three pieces of welcome news:
Widespread automation is inevitable, but it won’t happen as quickly as has been predicted.
Automation won’t eliminate the need for human workers, rather it will transform our day-to-day tasks, likely for the better.
Aging populations in many developed countries will lead to a decline in the total work force, leaving a gap that automation can fill, thereby contributing to overall economic growth.
Measured by tasks, not jobs
The report is the result of two years of research on automation technologies and their possible effects on the economy. Instead of focusing on sectors of the economy or whole jobs, researchers broke down 800 different occupations into the tasks and activities they’re made up of, then analyzed the automation potential of each activity.
A teacher’s job, for example, requires creating lesson plans, conveying information to students, answering questions, and grading assignments. It may be easy for a computer to take over conveying information, but harder to automate the subjective and interactive aspects of learning.
Under currently-available technology, MGI estimates 49 percent of activities can be automated, but less than five percent of jobs can be fully automated.
The activities most susceptible to automation are collection and processing of data and operating machinery in a predictable environment. These activities are most common in manufacturing, accommodation and food service, and retail trade.
Least susceptible are activities like expertise-based decision making, creative tasks, and managing people.
Globally, the report calculated automation potential equates to 1.1 billion workers, with employees in China, India, Japan, and the US making up more than half that total, and China and India together accounting for more than 700 million automatable full-time employee equivalents.
The pace of automation, MGI predicts, will be affected by five factors.
1) Technical feasibility: For jobs to become automated on a large scale, technology needs to be further developed and perfected to match the more complex human capabilities, like natural language understanding and emotional and social reasoning.
2) Cost: It’s only rational to automate a task if automation is cheaper than paying a human. Hardware is expensive to deploy, so automation that requires hardware has high up-front costs compared to wages. Software tends to be lower-cost, making it easier to adopt. Falling hardware and software costs will mean greater competition with human labor.
3) Labor market dynamics: Supply and demand of human labor across industries, as well as the quality of that labor, will affect how fast automation happens in different jobs. For example, countries with high manufacturing wages will automate manufacturing jobs faster than developing countries with lower wages.
4) Economic benefits: On top of savings in wages, benefits like improved safety of workers or better quality of products will affect automation. For example, the mining company Rio Tinto deployed automated haul trucks and drilling machines and saw more than a 10 percent utilization gain as a result.
5) Regulatory and social acceptance: Even if the technology to replace jobs is available, it’s much more complex to change organizational processes, reconfigure supply chains, and adjust policies and regulations. Ethical doubts and public perception around machines replacing humans in intimate settings like hospitals, or making life and death decisions in scenarios like driving, also impact automation rate.
No one wants to lose his job to a computer, but MGI’s report makes the important point that as populations age, we will actually need automation-powered growth. Today, 15 percent of the US population is over 65, but by 2060 over-65s are predicted to grow to 24 percent of the population. That means fewer workers in an economy that will need to keep growing, and automation could be part of the solution.
This isn’t the first time in history that technology has replaced jobs, or the first time people are resistant to it. This time may feel more significant because artificial intelligence and machine learning are making it possible for computers to do tasks we never thought they’d be able to do.
But before the Industrial Revolution, it also seemed unthinkable for steam to power factories or for machines to cut and shape metal tools. And guess what? The Industrial Revolution led to the standard of living steadily improving for the entire populations of affected countries.
As the report’s executive summary points out, when farm employment started to drop in the early 1900s and manufacturing employment fell after 1950,
“…new activities and jobs were created that offset those that disappeared, although it was not possible to predict what those new activities and jobs would be while these shifts were occurring.”
40 years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to predict that in 2017 we’d have millions of people employed as programmers, web designers, and software engineers—yet here we are.
Technological advancement isn't likely to slow down, leaving us no choice but to adapt. But if McKinsey's predictions are accurate, we'll have more time to make that transition than we thought.
Image Credit: Shutterstock Continue reading
An open-source 3D-printed fingertip that can 'feel' in a similar way to the human sense of touch has won an international Soft Robotics competition for its contribution to soft robotics research. Continue reading
Commercializing a new, innovative product is often the greatest challenge across the research and development landscape, as is evident in the failed attempt to bring jamming-based robotic gripper technology to market. The company developing the VERSABALL tells the story of its demise and the valuable lessons learned in a compelling article published in Soft Robotics. Continue reading
The attacks of September 11, 2001, will go down in American history for many reasons—the deaths of nearly 3,000 people chief among them.
A footnote in that particular history book is of interest to us here: 9/11 was the first time robots were used in a real search and rescue effort in the United States. That bit of unofficial history comes from Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University, and a leading expert in the field.
In the 15 years since then, roboticists have designed all manner of machines to help mobilize rescue efforts or map disaster areas. There are small robots that can jump high and biobots—bug cyborgs—that can scurry through rubble. Some are humanoid-shaped, while others resemble small Mars rovers. A handful have been deployed into real-life scenarios, while many are still under development.
In the book Robotics for Future Presidents, Murphy emphasizes the role that robotics researchers play in disaster response: “Me and my colleagues are researchers in robotics, not disaster responders. Our job is to empower the responders with rescue robots that are easy to use and effective. Rescue robots don’t replace people or dogs. They go to places where people or dogs can’t go and assist responders in innovative ways.”
Debugging a disaster
One of the more recent innovations involves not strictly robots but cyborgs—and not of the two-legged variety.
Researchers at North Carolina State University have created insect cyborgs they can control remotely. Now they are betting the bugs will prove to be valuable cartographers with the assistance of an unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV.
Photo by Alper Bozkurt“The idea would be to release a swarm of sensor-equipped biobots—such as remotely controlled cockroaches—into a collapsed building or other dangerous, unmapped area,” says Edgar Lobaton, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State, in a press release about two papers describing the work.
The technology developed by Lobaton and colleagues would allow the biobots to move freely within range of a beacon carried aboard a UAV. Radio signals from the biobots are fed into a program that translates the sensor data from their movements into a map of the environment in which the bugs were released.
Lobaton’s work focused on the development of algorithms for mapping using multiple biobots. He says by email that one of the biggest challenges is that typical strategies for determining position, such as GPS or visual sensors, are not well-suited for the biobot swarm.
“This is why we had to develop a new methodology that only depends on weak localization information between the agents,” he says, referring to the insect cyborgs. “In particular, we only use encounter information between them whenever they get within a specific range of each other. This led to the development of a new framework to manage this type of scenario.”
The article on the framework for developing local maps and stitching them together was published in Robotics and Autonomous Systems. A second article on the theory of mapping based on mobile sensors’ proximity to each other was published in IEEE Transactions on Signal and Information Processing over Networks.
Jumping over disaster
Duncan Haldane at the University California, Berkeley, developed the world’s highest-jumping untethered robot, modeled on the galago, a nocturnal primate in Africa known for its amazing vertical leap. A visit to a FEMA search and rescue training site inspired the robot, nicknamed SALTO (saltatorial locomotion on terrain obstacles), which is capable of a standing jump up to one meter.
“After seeing how challenging it would be to move rapidly across an urban disaster site, I wanted to figure out some new strategies for robots of any scale that would enable that motion,” says Haldane, whose work recently appeared in the inaugural issue of Science Robotics.
Biology was his guide: specialized jumpers have a “super-crouch posture, a leg configuration that allows them to stay down for longer, letting their muscles store energy in their stretchy tendons, which is later released to produce high-power jumps,” he says.
“We built a single degree for freedom leg mechanism that uses this idea—new to robotics—and showed that we can produce 2.94 times more jumping power than would have been possible without the leg mechanism,” he explains by email. “Building the leg was hard, and we actually developed new methods for designing linkages to do it.”
Walking toward disaster
Researchers from other parts of the world are developing other types of robots with search and rescue in mind.
For example, a team of Italian researchers is developing Walk-Man. It’s not a retro version of the now-obsolete portable music player, but a nearly two-meter-tall robot meant to be a full-fledged member of a SAR team.
Euronews reported that Walk-Man has joints and motions similar to a human body, with hands capable of powerful manipulations. It is reportedly fitted with a stereo vision system and a rotating 3D-laser scanner. Like Haldane, Italian scientists took some clues from nature.
“Many principles that exist in biology have given us inspiration on how [we could design] a robot,” research engineer Ioannis Sarakoglou tells Euronews, explaining that Walk-Man relies largely on gravity rather than energy to move.
Coming to the rescue
Walk-Man, biobots and Salto may represent the future of rescue robots, but the typical machines used in disaster response today are unmanned aerial, land and marine vehicles—modestly sized robots that provide vital information about places emergency responders can’t immediately reach or assess easily.
In a TEDWomen talk, Murphy says if you can reduce the response to a disaster by one day, you can reduce the overall recovery time by 1,000 days.
“Ground, aerial and marine systems are becoming commonplace for different types of disasters,” Murphy says.
Murphy’s teams and their robots have responded to nearly 50 disasters in a dozen countries since 9/11, including Hurricane Katrina and the Crandall Canyon Utah mine collapse. Hurricane Katrina was the first time an unmanned aerial vehicle was used in disaster response. Now UAVs are a key tool for responders needing to get a bird’s eye view of a disaster scene.
Through CRASAR at Texas A&M, Murphy also leads the volunteer search-and-rescue group Roboticists Without Borders. The organization, in part, matches professionals in the use of ground, aerial or marine robots with agencies around the world that are responding to disasters. Roboticists Without Borders covers expenses for up to 10 days for each incident.
The hope, Murphy says, is to accelerate the adoption and improve the use of robots in disasters through RWB. The goal would be to put Roboticists Without Borders out of business by 2025, she adds.
“Robots can make a disaster go away faster,” Murphy says. “Look for the robots, because robots are coming to the rescue.”
Banner Image Credit: Stephen McNally Continue reading
Quantum Computing Is Real, and D-Wave Just Open-Sourced ItKlint Finley | WIRED"Qbsolv is designed to help developers program D-Wave machines without needing a background in quantum physics… today the company released Qbsolv as open source, meaning anyone will be able to freely share and modify the software… The goal, Ewald says, is to kickstart a quantum computing software tools ecosystem and foster a community of developers working on quantum computing problems."
Thanks to AI, Computers Can Now See Your Health ProblemsMegan Molteni | WIRED"Face2Gene takes advantage of the fact that so many genetic conditions have a tell-tale 'face'—a unique constellation of features that can provide clues to a potential diagnosis. It is just one of several new technologies taking advantage of how quickly modern computers can analyze, sort, and find patterns across huge reams of data."
FUTURE OF WORK
Robots Will Take Jobs, but Not as Fast as Some Fear, New Report SaysSteve Lohr | The New York Times"Globally, the McKinsey researchers calculated that 49 percent of time spent on work activities could be automated with 'currently demonstrated technology' either already in the marketplace or being developed in labs. That, the report says, translates into $15.8 trillion in wages and the equivalent of 1.1 billion workers worldwide. But only 5 percent of jobs can be entirely automated." (Access the full McKinsey Global Institute report here.)
Will Bots Finally Start to Grow up in 2017?Mark Sullivan | Fast Company "The big platform companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft have lots of people working on artificial intelligence, and many of them are applying AI in a bot setting. It’s pretty likely that we’ll see Act 2 of the bot story in 2017, and the user experience will improve somewhat."
DARPA's Biotech Chief Says 2017 Will "Blow Our Minds" (Interview)Dina Fine Maron | Scientific American"The director of its BTO, neuroprosthetic researcher Justin Sanchez, recently spoke with Scientific American about what to expect from his office in 2017, including work on neural implants to aid healthy people in their everyday lives and other advances that he says will 'change the game' in medicine."
Watching David Bowie Argue With an Interviewer About the Future of the Internet Is BeautifulMatt Novak | GIZMODO"Bowie had a back and forth with the interviewer, who at one point says that claims being made for the future of the internet are 'hugely exaggerated.' Bowie shoots back with a wallop of sarcasm about people who doubted that things like the telephone would change the world. 'I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg,' Bowie explained to the BBC. 'I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.'"
An Earth-Sized Telescope Is About to 'See' a Black Hole for the First TimeWilliam Rauscher | Motherboard"Black holes challenge our most fundamental beliefs about reality. Visionary scientific minds, including the theoretical physicists Stephen Hawking and Kip Thorne, have devoted entire books to unpacking the hallucinatory scenarios thought to be induced by black holes’ gravitational forces."
Image source: Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License Continue reading