Robots and Jobs; Man and Machine

clean towels yeah right do that without a washing machine
do that without a washing machine

A recent article in Harvard Business Review hit several key points I frequently find myself debating with colleagues who exhibit less than an optimistic stance toward the future of robotics and tech in society. Enjoy some fodder for your next futuristic philosophical discussion.

“It is becoming increasingly feasible and cost-effective today for robots to assume many of the repetitive, labor-intensive tasks that are part of many people’s jobs. … I do mean fortunately, because it is often these tasks that define the least meaningful and rewarding aspects of a person’s job.

I once mused on Quora that the biggest real first world problem is apathy. People too often live out their lives doing jobs they don’t really care about simply because those jobs pay the bills.

do this without a computer
do this without a computer

The past 20 months of my life have been spent at a computational neuroscience lab at MIT. I have a resounding, extraordinary respect for the capacity of a human mind. I find it sad – borderline tragic – for the majority of an adult’s life to be spent on a job that does not capitalize on the exquisite capacity of his or her mind. I personally find relief that there will be more creative, challenging jobs and fewer tedious, dangerous, repetitive ones in coming years.

Some think unemployment will skyrocket. Jobs will decline. Have those people forgotten the Industrial Revolution? It was challenging, but no doubt mankind has come out ahead. One glance through Steven Pinker’s stats tells you that we’re living in the most peaceful and healthy time in all of human history.

Thanks in part to an industrialized world, we enjoy modern resources like clean water and pleasures like the web. Job diversity has soared.

What’s more,

 “The robot has effectively assumed the responsibility for the dull, dirty or dangerous task – but has not replaced the human responsible for getting that job done. The robot in this equation is a tool – not at all unlike what a PC is for an office worker, a tractor is for a farmer, or a nail gun is to a home builder. All of those technologies were once speculated to be replacing or at least reducing the need for the humans that wielded them. Yet all of those professions still exist today, and the workers in those fields are better, happier, and more productive because of them.”

For more perspective on tech and innovation, I highly recommend The Pixar Story. In a nutshell, this documentary chronicles the co-evolution of computers and animation. Pixar saw computers as a tool for humans, not a substitute. Computers are not innately creative. They wouldn’t on their own accord animate Toy Story or Avatar. But humans with computers..now that’s a recipe for marvel. The same could be said for robotics. And with solid societal purpose.

“Over the next 40 years, we are going to see a dramatic drop in the percentage of working-age adults across the world. …. more people with fewer social security dollars competing for services, and fewer working people available to deliver those services to them… We will need robots to help us deal with this reality, doing the things we normally do for ourselves but that get harder to do as we get older.”

Final words of parting wisdom:

Before you dismiss this vision for a highly automated society, think about it the next time you put a load of laundry into your washing machine or hit the start button on the dishwasher as you head off to bed. These are tools that have automated unpleasant and time-consuming aspects of our lives, and given us more free time to pursue more productive or pleasurable activities.

Today most of us have great power and responsibility that we often take for granted: the power to choose how we spend our lives. As technological advances whittle away the availability of tedious employment, how will mankind respond?

Transitions are turbulent. But if the past is any indication of the future, humans will rise to the occasion.

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What is TEDx?

TED – Technology, Entertainment, Design – is a pro bono organization that shares intriguing, intellectual, inspiring multimedia presentations from the pinnacles of human achievement.  To me, they demonstrate that the categories of accomplishment continually expand in the presence of persistent discovery.  This is what I think TED promotes through its “ideas worth spreading.”

TEDtalks, as these multimedia presentations are called, run from three to eighteen minutes in length (my personal favorite lasts but six).  Collectively, TEDtalks have been viewed near a billion times worldwide. ~700 talks. ~700,000,000 views.

If TED is new for you, you are in for a treat.   Enjoy.

The curators of ideas worth spreading fittingly shared their concept and created the “independently organized TED event.”  TED becomes TEDx.  Thousands of individuals then curate action by sharing TEDlike ideas.  This catalyzes an entire new level of collaboration and even, as Chris Anderson proposes, crowd sourced innovation.   It’s almost a new societal infrastructure.

This is amazing.   Not only is this one of the most beautiful evolutions of our human race, but the longer term outcome – say, what becomes of TEDx in five, ten years – is wonderfully beyond my imagination.

In my opinion, TEDx is a concept derived from TED.  Its purpose is to procure the finest attribute of humanity:  our capacity for thought.

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“Book about the variety of the world”

The title is quoted from a hero of mine, Marco Polo.

First allow me to give thanks that it only takes 8 hours to travel from America to London.

Second, thoughts about travel’s influence over time.  This globe has little ships drawn on it noting significant  navigator voyages:  Vasco de Gama, Magellan, Charles Darwin, Zheng Ho.  Pardon?  I Googled this explorer.

Marco Polo’s Travels comes to mind and I vaguely anticipate what to expect of the Ming Dynasty‘s Admiral of the Treasure Fleet (for real?!).  Awe and inspiration ensue and I get excited enough to share.

  • In the fall of 1405 a trading party of 28,000 men set sail under Admiral Zheng Ho.
  • The ~62 flagships that chaired this moving nation measured approximately 400 feet long by 160 feet wide (122 m x 50 m) and carried ambassadors and the national trade of China.  The escort was an additional 190 ships.  Compare this to modern day feats of marine lavishness.  In 2009, 600 years after Zheng Ho, the largest yacht in the world measured 531 ft (162 m).   Head down the list and look at the size of #6.  You guessed it.  400 ‘.

Zheng He’s ships relative to those of Columbus

  • This flagship two year journey took the crew from the mouth of the Yangtzee, in North-East China trading from Vietnam to  Java before finally reaching Calicut, West India, their destination.   Zheng Ho loaded up on more than just imported items; foreign ambassadors traveled back onboard the troupe as well as on their own accord.
  • The fleet (over 300 ships and 28,000 people acompanying the tradeable wealth of China and serving as early forms of dignitaries) eventually takes six more voyages (early evidence of exploration as a profitable investment), venturing to the Persian Gulf and south along Africa’s coast.  During each trading expedition, new diplomats are brought to Nanjing and old ones ferried home.

Imagine what commerce I take for granted.  Pre-imagine internet or email – instantaneous information distribution – international trade facilitates the dispersion of ideas beyond borders, what a revolution.  Globalization infancy!

From warfare (hello, gunpowder and The Prince) and culture, to goods and services, communication has profoundly enhanced the development of the human race.  A day in the life of 2010 can incorporate a globe full of cultures and ideas.  We sometimes forget, in this world of quickness and connectivity, the extraordinary relativity of when in time we live.  Forget 2 months to cross the Atlantic..what if it was not even an option?  The beauty of exploration.

May you always remember that the world has more to discover.  If you don’t, someone else will get to have all the fun!

Amy

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Excel at Innovation

The other day while carousing Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues for the umpteenth time, two thoughts intersected, simultaneously stirring a bit of curiosity.

Junto is Franklin’s 1727 charter improvement and mental exploration club. Upon initiation, members swore to “endeavor impartially to find [truth] and receive it, and communicate it to others”. This group is responsible for the first public library, fire departments, public hospital, police departments, paved streets, and University of Pennsylvania. Perhaps even more importantly, it fostered an atmosphere of intellectual curiosity and discussion. It provided means for men to share ideas and exchange structured argument; to experiment with thoughts and expression and learning and reap the benefits of an environment conducive to exploration.

Junto is one half of my thought intersection. The remaining is TED. It is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, Design. Excelling beyond this definition, the “ideas worth spreading” house of ingenuity hosts conferences boasting internationally renowned speakers across categories such as creativity, discovery, simplicity, and wisdom. Intriguing conversations abound.

Junto. TED. Is today’s idea sharing group a reincarnation of Ben Franklin’s improvement society? Do the colaborations and developments TED has fostered over the years compare with the first library or public hospital? Difficult questions to answer without empirical datasets to directly link project development and implementation with TED events and networking (if such data exists, please share). In my opinion, then, Yes.

One thing is certain. Openness in mind and disposition, be it the 1700’s or the 21st century, always fares well for mankind. We social creatures must share inspiration to excel at innovation. One man quintessentially becomes many when he combines others’s thoughts and ideas with his own. And many men can become few if they disregard the potential of the world around them. Junto offered, as TED does today, the invaluable opportunities to develop and elucidate what we already know in pursuit of what we have yet to discover. And that, to me, is the most exciting thing in the world.

Be an open book,

Amy

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