The rise of the robots: technology and the threat of mass unemployment
By martin ford
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