August 26, 2015

UNDERESTIMATING HOW EASY JOBS ARE:

THE PROBLEM WITH AMC'S SCI-FI HIT HUMANS (ANDREW AGHAPOUR,  AUGUST 26, 2015, Religion Dispatches)

[W]hile androids make for a powerful literary device through which to explore our fear that technology might one day surpass us, the human form isn't always best for the job. Take, for example, the synth telephone operator. Why create a physical robot for this job which has to receive audio through a wired earpiece and then respond via speaker into a microphone? Couldn't synth software do the trick without complex parts that mimic the functions of ears and a mouth?

Furthermore, wouldn't it make better economic sense to distribute artificial intelligence across multiple hardware platforms, instead of clustering so much precious technology into a single body? Wouldn't it make more sense to have a dog-like Roomba, a wireless home operating system, and a self-driving car, since each component could be upgraded and replaced?

In our own world, this diversified approach to robot morphology is already the norm. Rather than build androids with broad intelligence and skill sets, manufacturers have been developing highly specialized robots for specific tasks.  Many are modeled after existing creatures, and so it would be more accurate to call them "theroids," or "animal-like" robots. For underwater spying the U.S. Navy built a drone that looks and swims like a Bluefin tuna; Boston Dynamics' "Big Dog" is a tireless pack mule that will walk alongside soldiers in the field; and robotic swans might soon be testing water quality near you, which makes sense since swans are well designed for floating along lakes.

Visit Japan's first robot-staffed hotel, and you'll interact with a number of theroids, including a robotic dinosaur. If the dinosaur accidentally hurts you, and you're elderly, you might be taken care of by a bear. This cuddle bot is a patch of interactive fur, in case that's your thing. Of course animals aren't always the best shape for tasks, either. Hotels around the world are buying room service robots that happen to resemble floating trashcans.

In our own world we're also seeing white-collar jobs outsourced to intelligent machines. Instead of being shaped like humans, however, ours are shaped like computers. In Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford details a number of white-collar careers that have been threatened, or outright replaced, by clever software. The process of legal discovery, for example, was once the job of trained lawyers and paralegals as it took a human mind to discern whether a certain document or fact had potential relevance to the case at hand. Today, "e-Discovery" software can analyze millions of electronic documents and isolate the relevant ones. They go beyond mere keyword searches, using machine learning to isolate concepts, even if specific phrases aren't present.

Androids can't replace pharmacists on their own, but pharmacists can be replaced by a complex automated system like the University of California San Francisco's robotic pharmacy, which is capable of producing hundreds of thousands of labeled doses of medicine without error. This is part of the growing trend within large-scale manufacturing to replace teams of people with customized, automated systems. As John Markoff recently detailed, robotic arms are now picking the lettuce we eat, operating the grocery distribution systems that bring that lettuce to our neighborhoods, and building the cars that get us to the store.

Of course, we'd like to think that only a machine that's just like us could replace us on the job.  

Posted by at August 26, 2015 4:07 PM
  

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