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Robots without software

"Will we be retired - or unemployed?" Chris Phoenix asked in 2007. Last week, a Pew Research study on AI, robotics, and the future of jobs wondered the same thing and collated answers given by 1,896 experts. About half thought these technologies would displace more jobs than they create by 2025; the other half thought not. The pessimists project an increase in existing economic gaps and resulting social unrest. The optimists think new jobs will soak up the strain. We may have better data soon: the National Academies of Science is beginning a study.

Still: why wait for data when opinions are already available? On Wednesday, I was part of a Voice of Russia debate, with Kathleen Richardson, who studies robots and ethics, as well as the use of robots to assist autistic children and adults; Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute; and Nick Bostrum, the institute's director. This was Bostrum's and my second outing here: two years ago, it was killer robots and the founding of the Centre for Existential Risk. Some kind of progress, there: now they're not going to killer robotskill us, they're just going to take our jobs.

First, what is a robot? Classically, most of us think of Isaac Asimov's android detective Daneel Olivaw or such popular movie figures as C3P0 or the Terminator. Bostrum calls intelligence, rather than mobility or form factor the defining characteristic. Yes: we're biologically hardwired to think of things that are mobile, like animals (which might be predators) as smart and things that are stationary, like plants (which can't harm you unless you get close) as dumb. Carried into the world of electronics and fancy software, this isn't a good guide: modern washing machines have more intelligence than Roombas; and the "smartest" systems with the greatest impact on our lives are pure software. Sure, these are all robots. Sandberg said things are called "AI" until they start working, when we switch to calling them "automation". He has a point.

Sometime in the last couple of years, I recall a piece about MOOCs - massive open online courses - that discussed the way good-enough technologies emerge in fields where excellence has traditionally been consider vital. First, these technologies begin by serving the underserved - the people who don't have access to university degrees - and then eat away at the middle. The high end of the industry, in this case,top universities, tends to survive, often by coopting the technology (like edX). We've seen this with phone calls: first Skype replaced expensive international and long distance calling, then the legacy telephone companies started turning their networks into voice over IP.

Google Translate is a better example. It provides rough, good-enough translation in a lot of situations where no one would hire a translator (pub arguments, for example). By now, it's probably replaced human translators wherever getting the gist is adequate. But contracts, legislation, and diplomacy require a level of precision and detailed certainty that machine translation can't approach. Those who can afford it or whose needs are too complex hire people - and that, it seems to me, is what the digital divide of the automation age will look like in fields where automation can be done cheaply. It may hit hardest in the countries to which work is now being outsourced: see Foxconn.. The safest jobs are in fields where automation is expensive and/or difficult *and* outsourcing to "robots without software" elsewhere in the world is impossible.. Learn plumbing, or automechanics.

Or, just possibly journalism. All media are suffering from a mix of changing business models, vastly increased competition from free services (our version of outsourcing), vastly increased competition for consumers' time and attention. Journalism itself is happening all over the place, sort of proving the point: much of the kind of investigative journalism that newspapers and magazines used to do is now funded by NGOs, who are, in turn, typically funded by foundations and others who can still afford it. There are narrow areas where automation succeeds - such as quarterly earnings stories and the results of high school football games. But we're a long way from robots that can do the creative stuff: digging, interviews, analysis, shaping stories. Sandberg also thought robots wouldn't make much headway in professions such as nursing, where human contact is vital. Vendors who sell assistive robots for the most vulnerable people will claim that these will make better care affordable to a wide range of people. Richardson argued, however, that what's needed there is not robots but social change. We do have a choice.

But there's a final element missing from this discussion: Google Translate was created by mining the millions of Web pages that had already been human-translated and analyzing them statistically to create a system that can guess at the meaning of a word or phrase based on the words that commonly surround it. As language inevitably changes, the robots are going to need people - us - to feed them the new stuff. Welcome to your new job as a Mechanical Turk.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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