NY Times: “Learning to Love Our Robot Co-Workers”

In case you missed it, the NY Times recently ran an interesting piece by Kim Tingley on working alongside robots. Some excerpts: 


The more I talked with engineers and civilians alike, the more I came to believe that this feeling was hardly unusual and that it went beyond the perfectly rational fear that a robot might take your job. “My deep worry is that every time you see a robot doing what a human does, there’s this visceral response — it’s human nature,” Julie Shah, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at M.I.T. and the leader of its Interactive Robotics Group, told me. This response is so intense, and so crucial to people’s acceptance or rejection of robots, that Masahiro Mori, a Japanese robotics professor, famously graphed it in 1970. He found that our affinity for robots increases as they come to look more and more human — until the point when the likeness is similar enough to momentarily fool the eye. Once the illusion is discovered, the viewer is unsettled and affinity plunges, a dip Mori dubbed “the uncanny valley.” The danger is that our uneasiness will prevent us from preparing for a future in which robots interact with humans in increasingly sophisticated ways, and one that — thanks to rapid advances in computing and mechanical engineering — is coming, and coming soon.

In the West, Frankenstein’s monster embodies the threat of cutting-edge technology. We adopted the word “robot” from a popular 1921 play by the Czech writer Karel Capek about a factory that turns out robots, from robota, a Czech word for forced labor, who rise up and exterminate humanity. But the citizens of Singapore, Korea and Japan, the world’s leading users of industrial robots, and China, the most rapidly growing market for them, generally don’t share the same anxieties. In the Japanese canon, new technology often arrives as weaponry that Japanese scientists turn against an aggressor. (The nuclear parable of “Tetsuwan Atom,” a 1960s TV show about a heroic Japanese robot with an “atomic” heart, was lost in translation when it arrived in America as “Astro Boy.”) Viewing them through a different cultural lens, might we expect collaborative robots to augment a person’s skills, increasing his or her productivity — and thus value — without ruining any lives? Could we look forward to programming these machines to make our jobs better without fear of them usurping us? Or is it naïve to imagine that, if we cooperate with the robots, there won’t come a day when they can do everything we can do, only better, and their owners become our masters?

Whereas the exoticism of a collaborative robot in Dynamic’s workplace caused employees to stop and stare, G.M.’s robots fit right in to an already heavily automated environment. At a glance, it was actually Reed, a petite woman in a ponytail, who looked most out of place amid stacks of tires that were almost as tall as she was. I had been reading Karl Marx, who, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, accused machines of “supplying capital with weapons against the revolts of the working class.” But observing Reed in action with her robot, I could also see how collaborative robots might have a democratizing effect, giving people of various ages, sexes, dexterities and sizes an equal shot at excelling at all sorts of physically demanding careers. True democratization would require access to collaborative robots across industries, and it occurred to me that perhaps the profoundest difference between the coming wave of robot-driven automation and industrial revolutions of the past is that both Joe McGillivray and G.M. can afford to participate.

My father, who often puts in 70-hour weeks while contemplating retirement, felt an instant bond with McGillivray as I described him and the way he talked about his own small business. He understood the satisfaction, my father perceived, even pleasure that comes from tracing a path with your fingers so many times that your thoughts drift and for a moment you become inseparable from the thing you are making. On weekends, my father rises early and goes to work so that he can set up and run his machines alone, spinning copper wire into coils that will lie on an eyeball or fit in medical implants. When he returns home, his Levi’s hold the same faint aroma of industrial glue I remember from childhood, when the front door opened in the evening and I threw my arms around his legs.

But as my father and my grandfather and pretty much any engineer would tell you, sentimentality is the enemy of progress. My grandfather hated the machine grease that lodged under his fingernails — that he spent hours scrubbing away. He would have loved the new robots.

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