November 28, 2016

WANG | ¡I, Caramba!

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Roombas are adorable. They look like rounded pieces of To-Ak chocolate, and cost about the same. My parents managed to pick one up before the holidays, and it whirs around during the day, dusting off the micro-pests that clutter the household. My dad seems genuinely amazed. “Look at this,” he says giddily. He takes opens an app on his iPhone, and presses a large, green button that says “Clean.” The bot detaches itself from its base, and starts moving in a straight line until it bumps it head into the wall. Then it reconfigures, and moves away to clean some more. The house has never been cleaner; the brooms and pans have been tossed away, mops and gloves abandoned. We’ve gone back to the future.

Still, not everyone’s thrilled with what these Roombas symbolize for the future. Automation of jobs has always been a tricky issue. While they increase efficiency and accuracy for management, the excessive hand wringing in the working class over the potential of job displacement has started to create arthritis. Let’s take the trucking industry for instance. While self-driving cars are a bit far off (the cost to implement them has sent even the billionaires of Palo Alto running for the Hollywood hills), self-driving trucks are already here. Last year, Nevada tested a self-driving truck that was unfortunately termed the “Inspiration Truck.” The technology was sci-fi nirvana. It’ bells and whistles include the Highway Pilot,” which is a cruise control option that can be activated with the press of a button. It has radar sensors to detect oncoming cars and lane changes, and takes over steering and braking from the driver. Then again, the technology isn’t sublime. When given with a set of lanes and turns that are too complex, it gives a warning to the driver and hands it back to them after a short interval. It’s not autonomous just yet. But when it does become autonomous, there is the perception that 3.5 million trucking jobs are at risk.

Trucking isn’t the only thing that’s starting to be encroached however. In the past, when we’ve talked about machine vs. man, it was a blue collar problem while white collars just gave their perfunctory shrug. Remember the Luddites? They were early 19th century, lower class English textile workers who, under the storm of the Napoleonic wars, violently protested the use of automated textile equipment in their industry. Though they were eventually unsuccessful (You’d be surprised at how effective public executions are), their legacy was their name. Luddites now symbolize the wider counter-movement against machines, robots and technology that might come a take their jobs, but for the longest time, these were problems confined to the bottom depths of society. People with degrees weren’t concerned. Machines were accurate and efficient, yes, but also dependent on our whims, and most importantly, they didn’t learn by themselves.

But the landscape has changed. No one’s been quite able to grasp how quickly technology has surged. A recent Oxford study decided it wanted to dab in sensationalism instead of Earl Grey and declared that 47 percent of jobs were at risk of being automated in the next 20 years. Stunningly, it included finance among its list, where high priced degrees go to tan. But it makes complete sense: finance is a data processing and analysis career, which is exactly what AI intelligence and automation are built to do. Antony Jenkins, a former chief Barclays bank executive, ominously predicted in a lecture that in the future, half of the jobs in the sector would be gone. He’d called them “Uber moments,” referencing the loss of taxi driving jobs to part time, lower wage Uber driving jobs. During his speech, it’s possible the irony of his predictions may have dawned on him; he’d been fired earlier from Barclays that year.

But then there’s the moments when speculation starts to get out of control. Look at the medical fields: The rise of impossibly precise robots and further advancements in AI Learning have led people to dream more about an automated healthcare system. The da Vinci surgical bot is one instance. It’s an octopus like machine, each arm whirling and prodding, performing minimally invasive surgery to the highest degree. It’s led some to cast out their thoughts that robots can perform surgery entirely, to go along with diagnosing, cutting healthcare costs to a minimum. It’s wishful thinking, and it ignores the ethical intelligence of a human, not to mention their ability to step out of bounds to complete the task at hand. Most importantly, while automation has started to run rampant across the industry, there will always be expertly trained humans needed to guide the bots in complex and/or unforeseen situation. It’s also a little unbelievable that someone would be willing to hand over their lives and well-being over to a programmed bot. But still, people wonder.

It’s easy to understand why imaginations runs wild. Call it sci-fi hijacking. We’ve been partly informed by the sleek, futuristic promises of tomorrow from the high budget movies of today. Medical droids, AI service bots, Robocops, holograms, humanoids — all have their origins in the imaginations of Hollywood producers. When pop culture is constantly begging to wow us with the newest creations of the future — before the future — there’s almost this expectation that our future will resemble it. The plastic, whip smart robots in “I, Robot” are the best example. They’re exceedingly smart, lithe and powerful, quick to learn and adapt, and they’re able to pick up the ability to mimic humans. While the movie they inhabited wasn’t very good (Will Smith aside, of course), they presented us with the belief that one day our future could be very much like that. It goes along with the hazy expectation that robots in particular will become more and more advanced at an accelerated rate, so much so that one day, the abilities they possess can be unlimited. It gives us the ability to dream. It also gives us the ability to be reckless.

Back here in our stunted world, no one can quite predict the trajectory of robots. There’s a chance that their growth might expand past our models and become malignant (Hello, VIKI), but then again there’s a chance Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis might save all of us from an asteroid tomorrow. It’s impossible to say. But most likely, we’ll find that robots will push out jobs and deflate salaries, even in the most educationally laden fields, but it’ll be their assistance, rather than their dominance, that’ll prove most beneficial. Automation gives humans extraordinary powers, and by our side, our steps will turn into leaps and bounds. Society will flourish as never seen before. Unfortunately, we’re not as close as we might think. As I watch my parents painstakingly try to lug our bulky Roomba up the collapsible stars to clean the attic, it reminds me that while the sky’s the limit, we’re still stuck down here.

William Wang is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at wwang@cornellsun.com. Willpower appears alternate Mondays this semester. 

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