The idea of the "Uncanny Valley" is fascinating to me - just like the people out there who fear clowns. It's a fun, interesting idea, but it's hard to wrap my head around how someone can be afraid of a robot, unless it's telling jokes and imitating people. I think I'd be more thrown off by a robot if it were making fun of me ....
I think many of us who have worked with robots in industry can attest that robots do have a sense of humor, it's just that what they find funny is not always funny to us. For example, many robots seem to think that creating large quantities of scrap is totally hilarious.
I think robots are already affecting the view of labor by management. I've always thought the reduction in wages, health care and pensions subsidized the investment in robots in the auto industry. The joke goes that GM is a health care company that happens to also make cars. Deploying robots is one small move to reverse decades of growing labors costs.
Rob, automation doesn't have to be a bludgeon for management to use against labor. In an ideal world, higher wages encourage greater use of automation, which increases productivity, which leads to a higher standard of living for everybody. I think this is what used to be called "progress."
Conversely, low wages hold back technological progress. I'm sure all of us can think of examples of manufacturing processes which in developed countries are performed by a single machine, and which in developing countries are performed by a room full of people. This is certainly not because people in developing countries are foolish or backwards. It's simply because it's cheaper for them to do it that way, and it's cheaper for them to do it that way because their workers are so poorly paid. A side effect of this is that the quality and consistency are usually much worse.
Many engineers like to complain about unionized workers, excessive benefits, labor costs being too high, etc. I think this is probably a case of Stockholm syndrome, and in any case I have never once heard an engineer complain that wages and benefits are too high for engineers. The fact is that wherever workers have organized to fight for higher wages, they have pushed the cause of technological progress forward, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.
Dave, don't get me wrong. I'm actually pro labor, even as I recognize the auto industry is seeking every way it can to get out from under the cost burden of labor, partly through automation. I grew up in Detroit. My first real job (other than a Detroit Free Press paper route) was in an automotive paint lab. In the late 60s, you could get a great job in the auto industry with just a high school diploma. In those days, Detroit was a wonderland for labor.
That changed with competition from non-Detroit producers who were deploying a pretty high level of engineering -- and a lower labor burden. What are you going to do? Turn to automation. The plus side is the increase in smart workers and the decrease in mind-killing, bolt-tightening work. The down side is closed plants and massive layoffs over the past few decades.
What jumps out here is CMU as an incubator of robotics startups. The catchy name, Marilyn Monrobots Labs, distracted me from the real story, which is tHeather Knight's company as an interesting and potentially significant robotics company of the type which could put the U.S. in a leadership position as this field gains ground. (I should state that I'm talking about still-young field of humanoid robots, not the more mature arena of industrial robots.) In humanoid robots, most of the stuff I've read about in the past few years has come out of Japan, most notably Honda's Asimo. I'd add iRobots to my argument about important U.S. companies. iRobots spun out of MIT in 1990. It makes the Roomba vacuum-cleaner robot. Not technically humanoid, but I'd certainly put it in that class because of its in-the-home application. Paging Woody Allen's "Sleeper"...
Alex, I agree with what you're saying. It seems like a lot of these breakthroughs in the humanoid area at least are in the area of "fun and games" without any real world application. Now maybe the goal is, as suggested by the headline, to be solely a phsychological tool to get people used to dealing with non-humans, but I think the drawback there is that they won't be taken seriously in real applications.
Funny you mention CMU and robotics incubation. President Obama actually announced a new robotics initiative at CMU last week as part of his unveiling of the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, an initiative between government, industry, and unversities to invest in technologies designed to jumpstart manufacturing. One leg of the announcement was a joint effort by the National Science Foundation, NASA, NIH and the Department of Argiculture to pool $70 million to fund development around next-generation robots. It will be interesting to see what comes out of that partnership.
Beth, it would be interesting to know more about the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership. I know many engineers who are ideologically opposed to government spending in general, and I personally have qualms about corporate welfare. At the same time, I think that strategic government support of manufacturing innovation is a smart idea which may pay off many times the investment of taxpayer money in terms of benefit to the overall economy. I also think that technological advancement is a worthy goal in itself, at least as much as the exploration of space, scientific investigation, or art. If we are willing to spend taxpayer dollars on art museums, scientific research, and the space program because we recognize that these things, independent of their economic value, are important to the society we want to have, then why shouldn't we be willing to spend taxpayer money to advance the art of manufacturing?
It would be great to have a guide for how companies can get linked up with this type of government programs. I think many companies are not aware of the possibilities of this kind,of partnership with the public sector.
I'm in the process of reporting/writing a piece on the initiative, so stay tuned. In the interim, check out the White House press release at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/06/24/president-obama-launches-advanced-manufacturing-partnership. Be sure to let me know what you think once read the Design News article.
This sort of thing has been tried before, albeit perhaps not with real moving parts. I'm thinking of the irrepressible Microsoft paperclip. Well, actually I did repress him - I turned him off. Dangit! "him?" See what I mean about anthropomorphism? We must be getting close to that GPP (Genuine People Personalities) feature Douglas Adams wrote about in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
It describes some fascinating research using artificial intelligence to try to better understand schizophrenia. Essentially, the researchers looked at what parameters they needed to change in an AI program in order to get the program to respond like a schizophrenic patient would. They then tried to relate this to what might happen in an actual schizophrenic brain. At this point it's just a model, but it's a very compelling one.
I think we're still pretty far from having to worry about humanoid robots affecting the cost of labor. As Alex points out, even the Roomba and the RoboMower type robots don't have human qualities...yet. In the near future, I think the most successful robots will still be those that don't mess with the "uncanny valley."
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