Friday, September 05, 2003

Will We Be Enslaved by Robots?

Maybe, maybe not. But first, someone's got to build them, or more precisely, build a lot more of them and a lot more capable. So the question is, as it has been: what's a robot good for?

Canonically, robots are used for the 3 'D's: dirty, dull, or dangerous. That is, those are the kinds of jobs that we'd rather use robots to do than people. I'm not quite sure I believe the dull part: the fact is that the world population is extremely underemployed, and people would be willing to do a lot of boring jobs, and I suspect that they'd be cheaper than robots.

But I think the application set for robots is a little more complicated. First, there's Distant: applications where we'd like to have a human, but it's too expensive or inconvenient to get one there. Telepresence, such as interacting with your house even when you're at the office; exploration, like extraplanetary missions; or just inconvenient, like ocean bottoms or flooded mines. "Dull" is really two different things: dull because it requires constant attention, and dull because it's repetitive. Finally, there's Difficult: something that humans aren't particularly good at doing. (I'm tempted to add "Dog" for Aibo.)

So looking for a breakthrough robot application, we should first look at the five Ds, and consider human jobs for which it's feasible a robot could displace the humans. For Dangerous, there's certainly enormous interest in military applications, and I suspect that we'll make progress here, especially in hybtid remote-piloted but also semiautonomous robots (for example, the human might direct motion or the camera, but the robot would avoid obstacles and dodge enemy fire). Also, emergency jobs like firefighters or rescue jobs could well be augmented by robots. These are, however, tiny niche markets. Similarly, there are other niche markets for Distant; NASA is certainly developing many robots to explore the solar system. Robot telepresence might catch on; if it does, Michael Swanwick deserves credit for calling it in Stations of the Tide, an amazing science fiction book.

For dirty, there's a potential set of follow-ons to Roomba, but cleaning other surfaces, such as kitchen counters or toilets. Possible, although they'd have to be considerably less obtrusive than Roomba.

Dull. For jobs that require attention, like security guards, I think robotic systems have a great future. Although, having said that, the "robotic" part of it is less important than just sensors and processors. Still, it would be nice to have a giant robotic white blob that chased down escaping prisoners. For jobs that are repetitive, this has so far been the biggest application of robots, on the manufacturing floor. I don't know good numbers, but I do suspect that there are plenty of kinds of manufacturing jobs that are just barely out of reach of robots, and as they become more agile and more perceptive, they will begin to displace human workers (again, there's an economic piece as well, one distorted in the US by the corporate tax code that lets you count robots as a capital expense but not human workers).

Finally, Difficult. What's interesting about this D is that all of the others are about displacing humans doing existing jobs. But Difficult suggests that there are jobs that humans can't do, but jobs we might want done, and that robots could do them. It's hard to imagine these, because we don't have practice coming up with job descriptions that humans can't fill, but certainly they'd be ones that involved great strength, great speed and accuracy, and excellent perception.

Now for people who think that we're just a few years away from a huge market in robots, you must read this article about a cool robot toy that makes the same claim. That article is eighteen years old.