CBS News 60 Minutes provides new definition of robots

14 January 2013

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CBS News Reporter Steve Kroft interviews Rodney Brooks at ReThink Robotics.
Click on the image to see the segment.

On Sunday, January 13, CBS News 60 Minutes reported on robots. Their focal point was jobs and the changing nature of work. As a backdrop to their comments they showed Tessla Motors’ robots retooling themselves, Adept’s robots stuffing boxes with packaged lettuce and also assembling Braun shavers, watched ReThink Robots slowly pick and place an item, saw Aethon’s tugs in action in hospital corridors and had a brief glimpse of InTouch Health’s RP-VITA remote presence medical robot and a more descriptive view of the VGo Communications VGo robot at school and for home care. In the process the reporter, Steve Kroft, discussed a new definition of robots and robotics in sharp disagreement from the definitions posed by the International Federation of Robots:

Steve Kroft said, “The broad universal definition is a machine that can perform the job of a human. The machine can be mobile or stationary, hardware or software.”

This is different than the robotic industry’s most recent tentative definition of service robots which, in short, says the following:

A robot is an actuated mechanism programmable in two or more axes with a degree of autonomy, moving within its environment, to perform intended tasks. Autonomy in this context means the ability to perform intended tasks based on current state and sensing, without human intervention.

A robot has to have at least two degrees of freedom plus autonomy. A fully autonous car (2 degrees of freedom (DoF); steering and transmission) would qualify for a mobile robot as would 3D printers. But a washing machine (1 axis; 1 DoF), airline or other kiosk, or adaptive cruise control (all which could be considered as 1 DoF) would not fall under the category of robots. Thus Kroft artfully crafted his own definition to fit what he and his camera crews saw as “robotic.”

Regarding jobs and robots, Kroft relied on the comments of two MIT professors (Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee) who jointly wrote a book entitled “Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy” in which they attempt to answer:

  • Why has median income stopped rising in the US?
  • Why is the share of population that is working falling so rapidly?
  • Why are our economy and society becoming more unequal?

A popular explanation is that the root cause underlying these symptoms is technological stagnation — a slowdown in the kinds of ideas and inventions that bring progress and prosperity. But the two authors suggest a very different explanation. They show that there’s been no stagnation in technology — in fact, the digital revolution is accelerating at an exponential rate. They say in the 60 Minutes interview:

Technology is always creating jobs. It’s always destroying jobs. But right now the pace is accelerating. It’s faster we think than ever before in history. So as a consequence, we are not creating jobs at the same pace that we need to.

The changes are coming so quickly it’s been difficult for workers to retrain themselves and for entrepreneurs to figure out where the next opportunities may be.

The catalyst is computer learning or artificial intelligence — the ability to feed massive amounts of data into supercomputers and program them to teach themselves and improve their performance. It’s how Apple was able to create Siri, the iPhone robot, and Google its self-driving car.

We now have robots gathering intelligence and fighting wars, and robot computers trading stocks on Wall Street.

It’s all part of a massive high tech industry that’s contributed enormous productivity and wealth to the American economy but surprisingly little in the way of employment. We absolutely are creating new jobs, new companies, and entirely new industries these days. The scale and the pace of creation is astonishing.

What these companies are not doing, though, is hiring a ton of people to help them with their work. Because they don’t need that many people to work in these incredibly large and influential companies. To make that concrete, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google are now all public companies. Combined, they have something close to $1 trillion in market capitalization. Together, the four of them employ fewer than 150,000 people, and that’s less than the number of new entrants into the American workforce every month and the number of employees that work for GE.

I’d love to open this up as a discussion because the IFR’s definition, still tentative as far as I know, doesn’t cover the growing marketplace of service robot-like devices that perform human tasks. CBS News 60 Minutes did this with their new definition and with their report.

The producers at CBS News 60 Minutes also provided additional web and video extras that you are sure to find of interest:

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Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series.
Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series.

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