Illah Nourbakhsh on the Future of Robotics

Date: 09-07-2014Strelka
Source: The Wall Street Journal

The Carnegie Mellon Professor Says Robots Will Fuse the Physical and Digital Worlds Into One

Dr. Nourbakhsh is a professor of robotics and director of the Create Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, and the author of “Robot Futures.”

Sunday, April 1, 2035. You are house-hunting, driving to an open house showing to meet the owners, and now your car is speaking Esperanto, thanks to your daughter’s April Fools’ antics. Eventually you convince the car to return to your native tongue, and it queries whether you want your usual morning Starbucks cappuccino delivered to your destination. You arrive, jump out, and a Starbot punctually lands to deliver its coffee payload. Consulting the shared family calendar, the car requests permission to leave and fetch your daughter from soccer.

A Realtor bot trundles out to warmly greet you and connects you via telepresence to the homeowners, who are still in Florida. Together, you and the robot-embodied owners tour the apartment. The bot offers to arrange and project your home furnishings into each room, remapping furniture locations and adding several retro 1990s table lamps made available for single-command purchasing. The lamps seem strangely familiar, and you realize why—you glanced at them in a digital storefront last week. The robo-advert must have tracked your gaze direction and, ever since, you have seen digital versions of the lamps cropping up everywhere. The telepresence patch that the owners are using is probably free, sponsored by product placement. By the end of the tour, you’ve decided against the apartment, but you buy the lamp, asking for in-home delivery. It will be 3D-printed on-demand, installed and turned on, waiting for your return home.

The robots are coming. But they won’t all be shiny, Apple-designed C-3PO look-alikes with middle-aged Siri brains. I believe the robot invasion will be a hodgepodge affair, with legs, propellers and wheels; robots that run the gamut from embodied android forms to robotic technologies hidden in the woodwork of our homes.

All of these diverse robots will have one thing in common, though: They will serve to usher the online digital economy into our physical world—a reverse plotline to the sci-fi cult classic “Tron,” in which humans fall into the digital world of a computer.

Social commentators prognosticating about Google’s acquisition of robot companies note that, having conquered the digital realm, businesses are increasingly turning their attention to the remaining physical frontier. I see a more radical direction: Today’s corporations aren’t simply colonizing the physical world with robotic products—the move toward the so-called Internet of Things. These corporate actors are going to synchronize the digital and physical worlds into a single, fused matrix. Every physical action you take will have a digital consequence, and every digital act will push back on the physical world.

Imagine purchasing a trinket from a local gift store in Edinburgh, from anywhere, since every store’s interior is mapped and available for browsing, purchasing and fulfillment. Reminded by a sensor network in the yard reporting moisture levels, you will water your lawn both manually and by voice command because you have constant access to robotic middleware that permanently straddles the digital-physical gap. Just as, today, your search history informs every query result online, so by 2035 your physical history, from spoken word, gaze and body language, will affect every marketing decision our computer companions make.

Human behavior will be commoditized, recorded, analyzed, sold and resold in return for simple conveniences from walkout checkout to personalized on-the-spot delivery. When the fused world seamlessly meets your real and perceived needs, you will feel like a powerful puppet-master. Your needs will be met by robot baristas, robot Realtors and robot sales agents. But when every marketing bot wants your attention all the time, all with intimate details about your preferences and purchasing history, you will feel overwhelmed by the inability to find peace. I call this form of robot overstimulation “robot smog.”

Robot Smog
Robot smog is ultimately about ever-increasing rates of robot labor in society. Robots eventually pervade the world because robot labor is a moving target: Productivity increases yearly, costs drop and the human advantage erodes with every new robo-innovation. In “Dancing with Robots: Human Skills for Computerized Work,” authors Frank Levy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Richard Murane of Harvard University reveal how robotics selectively erodes labor categories across the employment spectrum. Their thesis is that all jobs requiring routine mental or physical activity are at risk as robots become ever more capable. The potential return on investment from robot labor is so enticing that even companies with no prior business in robotics have opened their own robot R&D centers—including Foxconn, Amazon and Google.

How fundamentally will expanding robot labor change the economy by 2035? In “Capital in the 21st Century,” economist Thomas Piketty evaluates wealth and inequality over hundreds of years, taking into consideration both labor income and income from capital. His punch line is that income from capital in the U.S. has achieved levels of inequality never before seen in available historical data, significantly outstripping the already high levels of labor income inequality that we also face. Start with Mr. Piketty’s current analysis and add a 20-year dose of accelerating robot innovation. As robotics edges out human labor across more categories of work, it plays the unusual role of an accelerating pump from labor to capital.

What will 20 years of labor-to-capital pumping do to society? The year 2035 will likely witness new levels of wealth inequality as income generation shifts from workers to robot-capital owners. An elite capital-ownership class will stand on the far side of a robot-ownership gap that will dwarf the inequality of today’s labor divide.

Robots for Change
But all isn’t lost. Just as robots empower companies to achieve impossible levels of productivity, so robot technologies can empower communities to collect and use previously impossible amounts of actionable local information. At its heart, robot innovation is about disruptively inexpensive sensors, networks and data processors. These very same tools enable communities to track air pollution, monitor groundwater health, and explore millions of environmental and social parameters for change.

The year 2035 will fall deeply within the zone of interactive big data: Communities will have as much power as governments and corporations at collecting, visualizing, interpreting and advocating based on rich information. Democratization has been bolstered by the age of open communication.

Prepare for a sea change when citizens not only have direct access to public discourse through networking technologies, but also ownership over large-scale social and environmental data that, until now, has been in the hands of the few.

Will our robot future deliver massive inequality or revolutionary empowerment? Either way, 2035 will be a disruptive year

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