Robotics Expert Warns Future ‘Is Coming Much Faster Than We Think’

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By Steve Rosenbush
Deputy Editor.

Automation is moving deeper into the mainstream, as a quick review of product announcements coming out of the Consumer Electronics Show demonstrates. 
The WSJ’s Neal E. Boudette reports that cars that park themselves and otherwise “take the drudgery out of driving” are an incremental step toward vehicles that operate with a much fuller degree of autonomy.
Increasingly, the robots are everywhere. As CIO Journal reported in December, DARPA is sponsoring a robotics competition with a $2 million prize. During one trial, a 330-pound humanoid robot showed how it can extend disaster recovery capabilities into areas where it isn’t safe for humans to operate. A Chrysler Group LLC plant that produces vehicle bodies can use as many as 1,000 robots. And mobile “telepresence” robots are providing an alternative to travel and centralized workplaces.
Joe Raedle/Getty ImagesCourt Edmondson works on the team NASA robot during the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on Dec.21, 2013. Such machines will make lives more convenient, enhance efficiency, and bring benefits such as the ability to more safely clear minefields or rescue people from hazardous areas. However, robots also will provide competition to all sorts of human labor and precipitate large-scale economic and social dislocation, one expert warns. And don’t think that the economic pressure will be limited to blue-collar jobs such as auto plants. Artificial intelligence already is cutting into the sphere of so-called knowledge workers, including journalists. Software can read and interpret economic data or sports scores and write stories based on the raw information.
“I think we need a serious public discussion … about the relationship between people and robots, which is like a new species that we are inventing,” says Illah R. Nourbakhsh, author and professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. He’s also the former robotics group lead at NASA’s Ames Research Center.
For Dr. Nourbakhsh, the social, ethical and economic challenges emerging from his field may be more difficult than the technology itself. He says much of the technology behind self-driving cars is “dead easy.” But when it comes to figuring out a way to keep machines from displacing workers on a mass basis, he is less confident. “The problem of massive decreases in employment at the middle level is tough. I don’t see a solution to that,” he says.
There are certain labor intensive industries such as trucking that are ripe for automation. Self-driving trucks are a particularly feasible form of self-driving vehicles, because they tend to use highways, which are easier to navigate than city streets. Not only could technology replace human truck drivers, but the industry’s composition is likely to shift from small and medium-size companies to large companies that are better equipped to handle the demands and expense of robotics, according to Dr. Nourbakhsh.
In his latest book, Robot Futures, published by MIT Press, Dr. Nourbakhsh imagines a world in which people share the planet with superhuman robots that raise a multitude of ethical dilemmas and competition. “We may have to get used to the idea of a new lower middle class, one that includes more well-educated people. People simply may have less luxury, and spend less money,” he warns. “We may have an ever-increasing number of people adjust their lifestyle.”
To avoid the worst of what he fears the future may offer, he founded CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon, whose mission is to fund projects that put robotic technology in the hands of communities and non-profit groups. The lab is funded in part by two classmates from Stanford University—Google Inc. founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. He says he wants to see robotics used at the community level to monitor the environment, or visualize change across the planet. For example, it backed CMUcam, a project designed to drive down the cost and power requirements of vision sensors for mobile robots. We won’t understand the social implications of automation until the technology is more fully developed. But Dr. Nourbakhsh is confident of at least one aspect of the future: “It is coming much faster than we think.”

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