Two media critiques about our future with robots

26 May 2015

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Source: violscraper/flickr

Source: violscraper/flickr

After years of alarmist comments from robo-ethicists, futurists, technologists, business leaders and pundits, including Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking, two journalists bring some reality to the issue.

Many notable scientists and technologists think that the artificial intelligence field is advancing so fast that it needs ethical guidelines similar to those in the biotech sphere. Others think that millions of jobs are being displaced by ever-increasing numbers of robots. Their comments have been reported with alarmist headlines which are often out of sync with the actual remarks. Now, two prominent technology reporters reflect on those headlines and comments.

kutner2In an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, regarding jobs being replaced by robots, journalist Robert Kuttner confronts the scaremongering headlines and posturing about higher unemployment imminent from the exponentially growing deployment of robots:

Take a closer look and you will see that many of the commentators warning about a new form of technological job displacement are either orthodox economists or those tacitly proceeding from the assumptions of standard economics that society can’t improve on the verdicts of market forces.

And that’s the deeper malarkey. The problem isn’t the technology, which, on average, is a huge benefit but, on average, doesn’t do it. (On average, Bill Gates and his gardener are very rich.) The problem is that market forces aren’t competent to translate the productivity gains into new jobs, much less good jobs, because the demand is in the wrong place.

With adequate taxation of wealth and sufficient public investment, society could readily create the new human jobs to replace the ones destroyed by automation. And the faster the rate of technological displacement, the more urgently needed is the social investment.

Read Kuttner’s complete article here.

Style: "ClassicBW"Over at The NY Times, in an article regarding the fears about out-of-control AI, technology reporter John Markoff brings some common sense to the recent flurry of fearmongering in the statements of some notable technologists and scientists, and the two most recent sci-fi movies with the common theme of runaway AI. Markoff compares today’s state of the art in AI technology – the DARPA Robotics Challenge finals next week in search and rescue-oriented tasks – to comments from Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking:

Nobody needs to worry about a Terminator creating havoc anytime soon. Given a year and a half to improve their machines, the roboticists, who shared details about their work in interviews before the contest in June, appear to have made limited progress.

In the previous contest in Florida in December 2013, the robots, which were protected from falling by tethers, were glacially slow in accomplishing tasks such as opening doors and entering rooms, clearing debris, climbing ladders and driving through an obstacle course.

Reporters who covered the event resorted to such analogies as “watching paint dry” and “watching grass grow.”

In fact, the steep challenge in making progress toward mobile robots that can mimic human capabilities is causing robotics researchers worldwide to rethink their goals. Now, instead of trying to build completely autonomous robots, many researchers have begun to think instead of creating ensembles of humans and robots, an approach they describe as co-robots or “cloud robotics.”

ex_machina_ver4Regarding the two recent sci-fi movies Ex-Machina and Chappie, Markoff wrote:

The agile robots in films like “Ex Machina” are far ahead of reality. Robots in films like “Chappie” are capable of great destruction. In real-world contests, state-of-the-art robots struggle simply to remove debris.

Read Markoff’s complete article here.

Since I’ll be one of the people “watching the grass grow” at the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals in June, I’m hoping that things have improved a bit – but not as outrageously as the beautiful robots in Ex-Machina.

My pet peeve isn’t the worry expressed about the possiblity of massive job displacement or runaway AI, but rather the headlines that tout and provoke and cause unnecessary fear and concern. I applaud those, like Kuttner and Markoff, who poke fun back at the headline writers while also provide real information that allays those fears and places the issues in proper perspective.

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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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