Sunday, October 16, 2011

As It Stands: Workplace reality - more robots, less humans


          By Dave Stancliff/For The Times-Standard
  Years ago I had a theory that cockroaches would inherit the earth. I still think there’s a chance, but now it looks like robots will, instead.
 There have been many troubling signs in the last few decades that robots are well on the way to making humans obsolete in the workplace. When I watched IBM’s Watson whip every human contender on Jeopardy, I knew our days were numbered. It’s hard to contend with a robot who makes fewer mistakes than you do and doesn’t get bored performing tedious tasks.
 Here’s something to consider; there will be 1.2 million industrial robots working worldwide next year according to Marshall Brain, founder of How Stuff Works and author of Robotic Nation.
 You can’t go a day without seeing some form of robot. They analyze documents, fill prescriptions and work in checkout lines in stores nationwide. They handle many other tasks that were once performed by humans. Google has been working on automated cars. Seven test cars have driven 1,000 miles with human supervisors in the passenger seat. It’s just a matter of time before we get in the car in the morning, program it, and sit back and relax during our daily commute.
 ATM machines reduce the need for bank tellers, virtual assistants can answer the phone 24 hours a day. In 2008, Aeon Co., a major Japanese retailer, introduced a four-foot-tall yellow and white robot at a store whose job was to babysit children while adults shopped. Can full-time robot nannies be far away? 
 Robots can reach areas that are inaccessible to humans and provide crucial help in rescuing victims from natural disasters. The most useful robots could be aerial drones that  provide aerial inspections or ROVs, which can help locate underwater objects and determine the condition of bridges and pipelines, according to the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University. 
  Lawyers and paralegals must be concerned with the arrival of software that can do their job in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost. Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, CA provides software that helps analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000, according to a New York Times report.
 Guess who else will have new competition for their job? Astronauts. NASA and General Motors got together and built an android - Robonaut2 - who will initially handle menial jobs such as cleaning the space station and assisting humans in space operations. It won’t take long for them to take the next step and replace a human crew.
 In ancient Greek and Roman mythology there were stories of metal men that, through the use of godly magic, came to life. In the real world of the 21st Century there’s the MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System), made by Foster-Miller, which has provided armed robots in Iraq. Drones and other machines are also increasingly used in reconnaissance and combat missions. 
 Especially troubling to an old journalist like me is the software developed by  Northwestern University Narrative Science that specializes in machine-generated stories. Robots writing stories! We must be headed for the end times.
 Why robots? That’s simple. They are cheaper than beat reporters. Look at the Big Ten Network, partially owned by Fox Cable. Their director of new media didn’t make any bones about telling Bloomberg BusinessWeek that they use the service for baseball and softball coverage because it’s less expensive. Yeah, but what about quality coverage for their readers?

  I’m not saying robots will start locking humans away like in the movies “The Matrix” or “I, Robot,” but I suggest we’re getting closer to a future when there will be no jobs for humans. Then what? The robots get tired of us stupid humans like in the movie “Terminator?”
   Artificially Intelligent machines have, to all intents and purposes, been around for years.  Take a look at traffic lights, computers that run hospitals, airports. shops and homes. Our world would come to a grinding halt without the robots that run our lives. But what will happen when there are no jobs for humans?
  As It Stands, I guess that’s what scares me. I also think robots will figure out a way to eliminate the cockroaches some day!

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