Friday, September 3, 2010

Wanted: Robot Labor

Han Moravec, a principal research scientist at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, wrote,

“Multicellular animals with cells specialized for signaling (brain cells and nervous systems for thinking) emerged in the Cambrian explosion a half-billion years ago.  In the game of evolutionary one-upmanship, maximum nervous-system masses double about every 15 million years…  Our gadgets, too, are growing exponentially more complex, but 10million times as fast as that.  Human foresight and human culture move things along faster than blind Darwinian evolution.  The power of personal computers has doubled annually since the mid-1990’s; today’s PC might be comparable only to the milligram nervous systems of insects or the smallest vertebrates, but humanlike power is just thirty years away.”[1]

Computers, and robots with, “humanlike power is just thirty years away.”  Setting aside my childhood science-fiction fantasies about how cool (Star Trek) and how terrible (Terminator) robots with humanlike thinking power will be, Moravec’s thesis has serious implications for public education, and the US economy.  When robots are performing low-level service jobs, what will high school or college dropouts do for a living?  What skills and knowledge will tomorrow’s children need to obtain meaningful employment in 2040?

The automobile industry has already seen the beginning of the robotic revolution.  2010 robots, only performing at an intelligence level of “insects” are capable of performing simple, repetitive tasks found on an assembly line.  The military is using them to search and disarm bombs, and robots helped seal the gushing oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.  Hospitals and Business are even experimenting with robo-docs and robo-employees.  Army and BP robots require a human at one end controlling the machine.  In effect, they are complex puppets with virtual strings ranging worldwide.[2]  If Moravec is correct about robots of 2040, then these future machines will be able to perform far more complicated programs without human controllers.  

Moravec is not imagining machines capable of creative human though or human inspiration.  These are not robots capable of inventing a new food recipe or designing a house.  In 2040, I imagine there will still be a demand for creative chefs and architects.

Rather conservatively, his robots of 2040 are capable of running extremely complex multi-step programs.  Imagine a robot that can cook and prepare a fast-food meal, or a robot that can assemble a building.  Imagine robots that can lead a customer to the proper shelf at department and ring-up that sale.  Imagine robotic cars that can drive themselves.  Imagine that in 2040, low-skill service jobs that currently employ millions of Americans are gone, automated.

Already, the robots features in Markoff's September article roll out for only $15000.  Imagine if a low-level food service robot cost twice that much ($30000) plus an additional $10000 each year for power and maintenance.  Imagine this robot will need replacing every 5 years, but can work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  That imaginary robotic worker would then cost out at a mere $1.82 an hour.  

Moravec may be wrong in his prediction, but I don’t think he is.  In March of 2010, researchers at the North Carolina State University announced the creation of a nano-dot memory chip that can hold an entire library of information in a single square inch.[3]  One month later, HP announced a separate break though in computer memory that mimics human synapses. “We have the right stuff now to build real brains,” commented one of HP’s physicists.[4]

Educators and educational reformers are focused on teacher evaluation right now.  The debate seems to be centered on if student test scores should be a part of evaluating teachers and if so, how much weight student test scores should have in these evaluations.

Perhaps it is time again to look about the curriculum we are teaching in K-12 education.  The publication of new National Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics, is a start on this road, but are those standards the kinds of skills and knowledge that young adults will need in 2040?

Teachers should take the lead in this coming debate.  We should begin to think seriously about the next generation of teachers and students and make some decisions about what a well-educated 18-year-old will look like in 2040.  Additionally, we need to continue the discussion about reducing the numbers of school dropouts.  High school dropouts are severely limited in their employment outlook.  In 2040, when robots with “humanlike power” are available to perform low-skill service jobs, the economic outlook for under-educated Americas looks bleak indeed. 

[1] Moravec, Hans.  “Making Minds.”  Science at the Edge: Conversations with the Leading Scientific Thinkers of Today.  John Brockman, ed.  New York: Union Square Press.  2008.
[2] Markoff, John.  “The Boss is Robotic, and Rolling up Behind You.”  New York Times.  September 4, 2010.
[3] Narayan, Dr. Jay and Shipman, Matt.  “Nanodot breakthrough may lead to ‘A Library on One Chip’.”  North Carolina State University New Release.  March 28, 2010
[4] Markoff, John, “HP sees revolution in memory chip.”  New York Times.  April 7, 2010.