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The Past, Present, and Future of Robotics: Interview with Rich Mahoney, Director of Robotics Engineering at SRI (Part 6)

Posted on Wednesday, Nov 27th 2013

Sramana Mitra: I think robotics is extremely promising, and the whole democratization of access to quality services is very ambiguous, compelling and also not terribly difficult to figure out the value of.

Rich Mahoney: I think another part that is getting a lot of adoption lately is agriculture. There is a company called Blue River based in Mountain View. They are focusing on lettuce farming. This is a very difficult manual task – the fitting of the lettuce after you do the initial planting. Imagine – all day long people are bending over and picking from a head of new lettuce leaves which leaf they want to leave, and doing that in a methodical way. Blue River is creating a technique that can analyze the leaves, pick the most robust based on their algorithm, then get rid of the other ones, and do it in a regular uniform way. That is also a form of quality that is being applied to agriculture and should be affecting yields and cost.

SM: What is the impact on robotics on jobs? If all these repetitive tasks become automated, what happens to the low-end jobs?

RM: In the work I do I have not sought this topic out, but it is a topic that is a constant part of the work we are doing. The thing I have come to discover is that robotics is the poster child for technology advances and the effects of technology on the job market. There has been an enormous impact on the job market with personal computing, mobile computing, and AI applications in different fields. The legal field has been tremendously impacted by software, for example, and there is barely a whisper in the media about it. Any story about robots and interactions between people and robots leads to a fear of jobs being taken away. It is understandable, because robots interact with people in a way that is like how people interact. So there is more of a direct relationship with robots that people have.

In terms of what is happening right now, there is a well documented view that this emerging personal robot market is actually creating more jobs and creating higher efficiency – especially in manufacturing warehouses. That is a field that is growing, and as it grows it is making use of more robots. The overall people in any manufacturing warehouse may be smaller, but you have more and more of them and they are becoming more competitive because of the use of robots. So there is this overall increase in jobs. At some level, like in what I just described with the da Vinci robot, there are actually more jobs for laparoscopic surgery for surgeons, because they can use the da Vinci and perform that task. There are lots of other dynamics there.

The second comment related to jobs is that we are in the middle of a dramatic demographic shift in our country. This is happening in other countries as well. I am talking about the aging of the population. There is a definite decrease in the number of people who are able to do these general service-oriented jobs. It is true from one point of view, because the overall population of those individuals is decreasing relative to the total population. Then there is more demand on those people to do the jobs that are out there, including caring for this body of older people. In the U.S., for instance, the military and the government are starting to think about this as a possible security threat to the country. In 20 or 30 years they are going to have trouble getting soldiers to join the military, because there will be so much more demand for other jobs and people need to stay and take care of their families. That general trend is creating a gap in available workforce in certain industries. Agriculture is one of those, and it is also being affected by the changes in immigration laws.

But there are a set of industries where there is a lack of individuals available to do the work and where that particular job category has a lot of changeover. When you start using robots, you are not completely replacing people. On some level you are reducing the turnover you have in your workforce. There are trends that are quite positive in that regard, related to how robots can contribute and help with what is going on. There is this other view, though, that robots are taking jobs. They are going to create a class of undereducated employees who are not going to find work when robots start taking those jobs.

I can’t say I know exactly how robots will emerge and transition into that, but one thing I think about is the idea how quality services come from medicine, and imagine you start applying that to agriculture, construction, or restaurant services. Maybe it is not 100 years or 50 years, but this cycle of robots emerging, capturing information, understanding quality and then making quality available to everybody. I could have a chef [robot] at home preparing an extremely high-quality meal in 50 years, but until then, there is a transition we will have to go through in society – a transition that changes how we think about jobs and helps people work.

I think the fears people raise are on some level warranted and useful, but I also feel that there is not enough of that discussion geared toward managing this transition and understanding the upside potential of this technology. I feel like we should be using a little bit more of our bandwidth to think about how we can manage robotics in a way that we all contribute to society and in a way that we can actually see how it evolves over the next 50 to 100 years as opposed to just being afraid of it. Right now we are just thinking about “how it can take jobs,” and not thinking this through in the longer term.

This segment is part 6 in the series : The Past, Present, and Future of Robotics: Interview with Rich Mahoney, Director of Robotics Engineering at SRI
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