THE COMING ROBOTICS REVOLUTION

Wall Street Journal on March 11, 2016, published an article by Irving Wladawsky-Berger on the coming robotics revolution. Hi, Robot: Work and Life in the Age of Automation,” reads the Hamlet-inspired cover of the July, 2105 issue of Foreign Affairs. The clever cover highlights the issue’s main theme, artificial intelligence and robotics… Excerpts below:

As its introductory article reminds us “new technologies have been revolutionizing the world for centuries, transforming life and labor and enabling an extraordinary flourishing of human development. Now some argue that advances in automation and artificial intelligence are causing us to take yet another world-historical leap into the unknown.

Like no other technologies, AI and robots force us to explore the boundaries between machines and humans. Will they turn out like other major innovations – highly disruptive in the near term, but ultimately beneficial to society?


Daniela Rus, MIT professor and Director of the Computer Science and AI Lab (CSAIL), is in the techno-optimist camp, as am I. In her Foreign Affairs article, The Robots Are Coming: How Technological Breakthroughs Will Transform Everyday Life, Prof. Rus writes that “the objective of robotics is not to replace humans by mechanizing and automating tasks; it is to find ways for machines to assist and collaborate with humans more effectively… By working together, robots and humans can augment and complement each other’s skills.”

Robots, in her opinion, are a major part of the natural evolution of computing. In the beginning, all computers were relatively expensive big boxes. Then came personal computers…Over the past decade, the mantle has been passed to the billions of smartphones carried by a large portion of the world.

In a 2014 interview, Prof. Rus said that in 10 to 15 years she expects robots to be as commonplace as smartphones, “with personal robots that can help with everything from doing search-and-rescue operations to folding the laundry.” Her MIT research group, the Distributed Robotics Lab, has built robots that can “tend a garden, bake cookies from scratch, cut a birthday cake, fly in swarms without human aid to perform surveillance functions, and dance with humans.”

“Current research aims to improve the way robots are made, how they move themselves and manipulate objects, how they reason, how they perceive their environments, and how they cooperate with one another and with humans,” adds Prof. Rus.

Why is robotics such a hot discipline? All computers– whether mainframes, PCs or smartphones–are defined by what their brains–that is, their hardware and software–are capable of computing and controlling. Robots are computers that have both a brain and a body. A robot’s capabilities is defined by what its brains and body can jointly do.

According to Prof. Rus, the integration of robots into everyday life requires progress in three key areas.

It takes too long to make new robots.

“What’s needed are design and fabrication tools that will speed up the customized manufacturing of robots,” notes Prof. Rus. We need something like a robot compiler “that could take a particular specification – for example, I want a robot to tidy up the room – and compute a robot design, a fabrication plan, and a custom programming environment for using the robot.”

Robots have a limited ability to perceive and reason about their surroundings. Computers have made huge advances in automating those human tasks that can be well described by a set of rules. But despite continuing advances in AI, the challenges of applying computers and robots to tasks requiring flexibility, judgment, and common sense are still quite large.

The reason is that our actions are guided by two very different kinds of knowledge. Explicit knowledge is formal, codified, and can be readily explained to people and captured in a computer program. Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is the kind of knowledge we are often not aware we have, and is therefore difficult to transfer to another person, let alone to a machine. Tacit knowledge is generally learned through personal interactions and practical experiences. Everyday examples include speaking a language, riding a bike, driving a car, and easily recognizing many different objects and animals.

“Today’s robots can perform only limited reasoning due to the fact that their computations are carefully specified. Everything a robot does is spelled out with simple instructions, and the scope of the robot’s reasoning is entirely contained in its program. Furthermore, a robot’s perception of its environment through its sensors is quite limited. Tasks that humans take for granted – for example, answering the question, Have I been here before? – are extremely difficult for robots… it is hard for a machine to differentiate between features that belong to a scene it has already observed and features of a new scene that happens to contain some of the same objects.”

Robotic communication is not reliable. Much progress is also needed to significantly improve communications among robots and between robots and humans. Robots can’t function effectively without adequate bandwidth, or if attempting to communicate in a noisy environment where extraneous signals make it difficult to send and receive commands. This is a particularly serious problem when trying to use robots in the kind of general environment humans live in, as would be the case with transportation or search-and-rescue missions.

“Personal computers, wireless technology, smartphones, and easy-to-download apps have already democratized access to information and computation and transformed the way people live and work. In the years to come, robots will extend this digital revolution further into the physical realm and deeper into everyday life, with consequences that will be equally profound.”

Irving Wladawsky-Berger worked at IBM for 37 years and has been a strategic advisor to Citigroup and to HBO. He is affiliated with MIT, NYU and Imperial College, and is a regular contributor to CIO Journal.

Comment: There are signs that the coming robotic revolution will in the United States be the beginning of a new Gilded Age. Recent authors in Sweden of books and articles on the coming revolution have pointed out that for smaller European countries there is presently a great challenge if they do not want to be left behind. They will have to quickly adapt and learn to use robots in a number of areas.

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