Don’t Fear the Robots
Every time one of these Boston Dynamics videos hit, they are met with a mix of amazement and predictions of doom at the hands of our new robot overlords.
It is impressive.
It is also very well choreographed and stage.
Impressive as the tech here is, it is important to remember that the Boston Dynamics videos are trailers for a movie that isn’t yet made. Look hard enough, you can find the blooper reels of the robots that are so impressive running, jumping, and doing other things failing as they work out the kinks.
Because the videos are not just videos, they are advertisements. For funding and investments. An actual warehouse environment is much different than the staged demo shown here. The AI will get there, someday, but it is only as good as it’s programing, and anyone who has spent time in the logistics and transportation industry will tell you it only takes one misread SKU code, or one mis-bayed item, or one wrong label, to make a whole lot of mess. The problems in becoming more efficient in logistics isn’t just the streamlining of processes, but the ability to problem solve and adapt on the fly in an very dynamic environment. That decision making ability is make-or-break in most situations in an environment that is long stretches of mind-numbingly repetitive actions punctuated by moments of intense and desperate revisions to the process. Automation is fantastic at the first, but the latter is a great challenge, and also the difference in success or failure. Robots that seek to fully replace humans have to do that, not just the manual labor aspect, and the most advanced robot is still only as good as it’s programing. As of yet, whatever “thinking” they do still has to be programmed in, and industries like logistics which are organized chaos on the best of days have far more variables than can be planned in advanced for.
While the day may come when robots fully replace human box kickers, the more realistic — not to mention profitable — use of automation right now is not in fully replacing the humans, but in enhancing and improving what they can do with robotic assistance. Variations on LEAN concepts have migrated from manufacturing and taking up space in everything from transportation to healthcare, and have fully taken hold in logistics. Smarter, better, and more efficient are the buzzwords for improvement. Such philosophy is naturally suited for introduction of automation to make processes more efficient. Compare the Boston Dynamics vid to this one of Amazon Robotics, which unlike the Handle Robot’s strictly controlled demo, is currently deployed and functional world wide right now.
More relevant than the hyperbole over the pending rise of Skynet is the issue of how much disruption disruptive AI tech is going to cause the job market. The spectrum of opinions runs the gambit from mildly disruptive to concerns whole industries will go human free. The truth is technology always interrupts jobs, and jobs constantly change. The refrigerator killed the ice delivery business, cars didn’t do the liveries any favors, and when was the last time you bought a wall phone?
It is also true whole industries can change suddenly. Manufacturing and mining have seen steep drops in the required manpower with inclusion of technology and automation. But examples abound on both sides of the evolving tech and economy. For every Youngstown or rust belt region gutted by these changes there are Pittsburgh and wide swaths of the sun belt that are thriving with new growth. Until they learn to do it themselves, the robots still have to be designed, manufactured, programmed, and maintained by humans, which creates it’s own new and disruptive industry.
AI will disrupt, and robotics will change the job market. But they also have to be commercially viable to do so. The robotics that best enhance and enable increases in human productivity will be the ones that take hold and change the world, like the Amazon Robotics currently are with little fanfare. When the Boston Dynamics machines make life better for many consumers the way Amazon has, then they will be truly revolutionary, not just potentially so.
But until then, the videos are really cool, trailers to a movie we really want to see. If they ever get around to making that movie as good as the tease hints it could be.