The rise of the ro­bots: tech­nol­ogy and the threat of mass un­em­ploy­ment

By martin ford

The Smart Manager - - Reading Room -

Aware­house worker ap­proaches a stack of boxes. The boxes are of vary­ing shapes, sizes, and col­ors, and they are stacked in a some­what hap­haz­ard way.

Imag­ine for a mo­ment that you can see in­side the brain of the worker tasked with mov­ing the boxes, and con­sider the com­plex­ity of the prob­lem that needs to be solved.

Many of the boxes are a stan­dard brown color and are pressed tightly against each other, mak­ing the edges dif­fi­cult to per­ceive. Where pre­cisely does one box end and the next be­gin? In other cases, there are gaps and mis­align­ments. Some boxes are ro­tated so that one edge juts out. At the top of the pile, a small box rests at an an­gle in the space be­tween two larger boxes. Most of the boxes are plain brown or white card­board, but some are em­bla­zoned with com­pany lo­gos, and a few are full-color re­tail boxes in­tended to be dis­played on shop shelves.

The hu­man brain is, of course, ca­pa­ble of mak­ing sense of all this com­pli­cated vis­ual in­for­ma­tion al­most in­stan­ta­neously. The worker eas­ily per­ceives the di­men­sions and ori­en­ta­tion of each box, and seems to know in­stinc­tively that he must be­gin by mov­ing the boxes at the top of the stack and how to move the boxes in a se­quence that won’t desta­bi­lize the rest of the pile.

This is ex­actly the type of vis­ual per­cep­tion chal­lenge that the hu­man brain has evolved to over­come. That the worker suc­ceeds in mov­ing the boxes would be com­pletely un­re­mark­able—were it not for the fact that, in this case, the worker is a ro­bot. To be more pre­cise, it is a snake-like robotic arm, its head con­sist­ing of a suc­tion- pow­ered grip­per. The ro­bot is slower to com­pre­hend than a hu­man would be. It peers at the boxes, ad­justs its gaze slightly, pon­ders some more, and then fi­nally lunges for­ward and grap­ples a box from the top of the pile.* The slug­gish­ness, how­ever, re­sults al­most en­tirely from the stag­ger­ing com­plex­ity of the com­pu­ta­tion re­quired to per­form this seem­ingly sim­ple task. If there is one thing the his­tory of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy teaches, it is that this ro­bot is go­ing to very soon get a ma­jor speed up­grade.

In­deed, engi­neers at In­dus­trial

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