Friday, March 28, 2014

The robots are coming .. rather slowly

The Economist has a special report this week about robots. Apparently with advances in engineering, simulation environments and ever-increasing computer power we are in the early take-off period of robotech. Money is beginning to flow into the sector, Google has made acquisitions and intriguing new products are emerging.

One area of application is healthcare for the elderly. The "Domestic Service Robots" article has this to say:
"Robots may also make it possible for old people to stay independent in their own homes for longer. Mr Angle says this is iRobot’s “long-term guiding star”, towards which the Roomba is a small step. Mr Gupta at the NSF thinks that general-purpose home-help robots would be a big advance which, given a push, could be achieved in a couple of decades (though that, he stresses, is his own view, not the foundation’s). Mr Thrun reckons it could be done more quickly.

"Mr Ng points out that if you get a graduate student to teleoperate a PR2 robot, it can already do more or less everything a home-help robot might be required to do, so all that is needed is better software and more processing power, both of which are becoming ever more easily available."
Comparing this with other transformational technologies, we're 10-20 years from such products becoming affordable and widely available. A teleoperated home-care robot is a kind of household drone. One could imagine an operator controlling maybe twenty of them (one at a time, mostly). Sure they'd be expensive, but compared to what? Care homes? Even without full autonomy this could happen sooner than you'd think.

This is bound to have an impact on cost projections for the future care of the elderly from, say, 2025 out. No doubt the Japanese will lead the way, hopefully in time for me!

As a youthful trotskyist, I was told that in the future economy of post-capitalist abundance, robots would do all the hard and dreary work, leaving humans to lives of creative leisure last seen amongst the Greek and Roman aristocrats. Perhaps within another generation robotech will indeed bring about that scenario - in the sense of automating human slavery. Is this a good outcome? Economists worry about mass unemployment of all except the most highly skilled. Those remaining in work are infuriated to contemplate an ever-increasing, unproductive fraction on welfare.

Leisure for all or welfare for all? Michael Gove was apparently channelling Wham! yesterday in a school visit, The Times helpfully reprinting the lyrics of the rap song he was reciting:
Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)

Hey everybody take a look at me
I've got street credibility
I may not have a job,
But I have a good time
With the boys that I meet down on the line

I don’t need you
So you don’t approve,
Well, who asked you to?
Hey, jerk, you work
This guy’s got better things to do

Bring on those robots, Mr Gove!