Robots In Space

Tomorrow Russia will be sending a humanoid robot into space.  The robot will be one of the passengers on a Soyuz capsule that will take the robot and other crew members to the International Space Station.  Once there, the robot will perform certain tasks under the direction and supervision of a Russian cosmonaut.

190723192309234a3550372iThere are some signs that the robot’s trip is a bit of a publicity stunt, with a whiff of the old “space race” about it.  For one thing, the robot’s name was recently changed, from “Fedor” to “Skybot F-850.”  For another, the Russians say the robot will occupy the commander’s seat on the Soyuz, rather than being carted up in the cargo compartment — although Soyuz being a capsule, there really isn’t a commander’s seat or much piloting going on.  The robot also seems to be a kind of multi-purpose robot who is largely controlled through immersive teleoperation (i.e., controlled by a human) rather than fully autonomous.

As for the whiff of the old space race days, there’s a conscious effort to compare Skybot F-850 to an American robot called Robonaut-2 that worked at the International Space Station a few years ago and is ready to return.  Robonaut-2, the Russians point out, was shipped to the ISS as part of the cargo rather than as a member of the crew.  Good thing for Robonaut-2 that robots can’t feel embarrassment!

Even though the Russian effort seems to have a lot of publicity elements to it, I’m still glad to see a focus on moving forward with robotics in space.  Astronauts are great, of course, but a lot of the hard work involved in tackling space is going to be done by robots who don’t have to worry about atmospheres or food.  If a little taste of the space race will help to move the process along, I’m all for it.

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Bad Robot

In these days of constant technological innovation, you almost expect to read about new marvels in robotics and “smart” technology on a daily basis.  But sometimes technological advancements aren’t really advancements at all.

russia-fake-robotConsider Boris the Robot, lauded on Russian TV as a cutting-edge development in robotics with the ability to walk, talk and dance.  Boris appeared on a broadcast, spoke in a robotic voice about his desire to learn to draw, and then danced to a song called Skibidi.  The broadcast said Boris’ dancing was “not that bad.”

But skeptics of Boris abounded.  How in the world could Boris move around without any observable external sensors, they wondered.  And why did the robot make so many “unnecessary movements” while dancing?  (A standard one hopes is never applied to human dancers, incidentally.)  And it also was suspicious that Boris just happened to be configured in a way that would have allowed a human being to be inside.

And then the illusion all came crashing down when a photo of Boris from behind showed a clearly visible section of human neck between Boris’ head and body.  Alas, Boris was in fact a guy in a robot suit — a robot suit specifically designed to give people “the near total illusion that before you stands a real robot.”

It just goes to show that it pays to retain a bit of skepticism about claimed technological advancements.  Before you buy that touted “smart” appliance, consider whether it’s really all that “smart” after all.  And before you go ga ga over a robot doing a twitching dance to modern music, be sure to check the neck area.

Robots On The Air

The U.S. may be ahead of the rest of the world, generally, when it comes to innovation and invention, but Japan always seems to be a little bit ahead of America when it comes to the speed of acceptance and application of newfangled technology.

when-paul-met-erica-2So it should come as no surprise that the Wall Street Journal has reported that some Japanese TV network will soon employ a robot as a news anchor.  People are making a big deal out of it, viewing it as another sign of robots encroaching on previously human jobs — even though this development has been predicted for years.

The robot, named Erica, has been created to resemble a long-haired woman and looks like a Japanese anime character converted to corporeal form.  She/it — I guess we’re going to have to get instruction on the politically correct way to refer to a gender-specific robot, eh? — will be equipped with a form of artificial intelligence that will allow her/it to read the news, although the new stories she/it reads will have to be selected by humans.  Erica apparently will be the first “android anchor” in the world.

Hey, wait a second!  I just realized . . . does this mean that the people who currently read the news on American TV stations aren’t robots?  Who would have guessed?

Assessing A Robot Dog

What’s in a dog?  Why do humans really want to have them around?  I think different people would give different answers to those basic questions, and the different answers might just tell us whether a newly unveiled robot dog could become a successful product.

landscape-1510610204-screen-shot-2017-11-13-at-45550-pmThe robot dog is built by a company called Boston Dynamics and it’s supposed to be coming soon.  It’s called the SpotMini.  SpotMini’s inventors obviously weren’t trying to build something that looks as much like a dog as modern technology, materials, and design will allow — the robot is bright yellow and black, has no fur, and has a concave, camera-like gizmo instead of a head.   It’s a robot that clearly looks like a robot.  And yet, aside from the use of “Spot” in its name, the SpotMini does have dog-like attributes.  It’s got four legs, which are shaped a lot like dog legs, and it walks and prances in dog-like fashion.  I’m guessing that it barks, too.

So why do you have a dog?  For us, it’s companionship:  even though Kasey is slowing down, she’s still got a funny, unique personality that we’ve grown to love, and of course Kish enjoys putting Kasey on her lap and stroking her soft fur and making Kasey do embarrassingly undog-like things like wave her paw in greeting when I come in the front door after work.  Kasey’s a member of the family, and we get a real kick out of her.  It’s hard to imagine a yellow and black plastic and metal box with four legs replacing her, even if the SpotMini were programmed to have a personality.

But if your primary purpose in having a dog is security, the SpotMini just might do the trick.  If the robot can detect intruders and bark like crazy to wake up its owners, and then confront the intruders and freak them out when a black and yellow torpedo comes charging at them, barking all the while, you just might have a successful product.  And if the SpotMini.2 version has robot jaws that can chomp down on the right people, it might be even more successful.  I could see people buying a security dog that doesn’t need to be fed or walked or cleaned up after, or boarded when they go on vacation, or taken to the vet and prescribed pricey medication.

In the next few years, we’re going to be seeing more and more of the robot invasion of our daily lives, and it will be interesting to see how people, and social activities generally, adapt to the coming changes.  The SpotMini might just give us a peek at our yellow-and-black robot future.

Flippy’s Takeover

Out in California there’s a “fast casual” restaurant called Caliburger.  As the name suggests, hamburgers are one of the staples on its menu.

448b016b00000578-4905576-image-a-2_1505977728222Caliburger’s Pasadena location has a new worker called Flippy.  Flippy is a quiet, methodical, highly reliable worker who doesn’t take up a lot of space, because Flippy is actually a robot.  Made by Miso Robotics, Flippy’s design is simple — it’s a robot arm, bolted to the floor in the restaurant’s kitchen next to the grille.  Flippy has a spatula where his hand should be, and he’s programmed to flip burgers and then put the cooked burgers onto buns.  A human assistant puts the meat down, Flippy does his burger-flipping thing, and then the human worker finishes dressing the burgers to fit the incoming orders.  The fact that Flippy has only a spatula hand make it easy to clean and maintain.

Flippy sells for $60,000.  Caliburger was one of the investors in the company that manufactures Flippy, and it got one of the first devices.  It has pre-ordered others, and it plans to install them in a number of its restaurants.  And, of course, Miso Robotics will look to sell Flippy to other burger-oriented restaurants.

Each burger-flipping robot will be performing a job that used to be done by a human being.  At about $60,000 a pop, Flippy seems expensive — until you figure that, with many states and cities raising the minimum wage, it wouldn’t take many months of operation before Flippy starts to pay for itself.  And Flippy is never going to miss work, or show up late, or complain about its hours, or become distracted by talking to a co-worker.  And Flippy is not going to need health insurance, or file a claim against his restaurant employer for violating a federal or state statute, or advocate for wage increases, either.  Until legislators start legislating about treatment of robots, Flippy is a lot easier for employers to deal with.

Welcome to the future.  And good luck finding that entry-level job that pays the ever-increasing minimum wage that is supposed to be an economic panacea and allow a fast food restaurant worker to support a family of four!

There Goes Somebody’s First Job

Popular Science has an interesting article about the development of a robot in Germany that grills sausages and apparently does a pretty good job of it.  So what, you say?  Here’s what:  the German robot shows just how easy it is for robotics to eliminate jobs.  And, since robotics mostly focuses on performing basic, ministerial tasks, the jobs that are eliminated tend to be entry-level jobs — the kinds of jobs that many of us had as our first jobs, back when we were teenagers.  Whether it is grilling sausages, flipping burgers, washing dishes, or bagging groceries (which was my first job), we’re likely to see increasing robotic inroads, which means fewer jobs for kids trying to earn some spare money so they can take their significant other on a date or go to the prom.

If you’re the owner of a sausage restaurant, why wouldn’t you use a robot instead of a teenage kid?  The robot in the Popular Science article has a natty moustache and is wearing a chef’s hat, apparently issues some German witticisms as he grills, and will never, ever complain about working conditions or fail to show up for work on time.  You wouldn’t have to pay for health care, perform withholding, or worry about unionization.  And, since we all remember the personality issues that inevitably afflict the teenager years, you wouldn’t have to deal with sullen, hormone-addled employees, either.

When robots take over those “first jobs” that many of us had, I think it will have a profound impact.  I thought getting that first job was an important step on the road to adulthood, where I jarringly realized that not everybody is going to treat me with kid gloves like my parents did.  If teenagers can’t get a first job, how are they going to get a sense of the working world, and how are they going to stay out of trouble?

Robots, Jobs, And The Minimum Wage

In his campaign for President, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has called for raising the minimum wage significantly, to make it a “living wage,” and in many places local governments have raised the minimum wage.  The argument for such raises is that if we just increased the minimum wage, people working at those minimum wage jobs would earn more money, could provide better for their families, and might actually spend more of their pay and help the economy.  In short, the country as a whole would be better off.

These arguments seem to defy basic rules of economics and normal human experience.  We know from our own lives that the cost of something matters.  How many people shop without looking at the price tag?  We also know from our own experience that if something becomes too expensive, we will try to do without that costly item.  So the notion that you can raise the cost of anything without any negative reaction or consequences seems both naive and outlandish.  The across-the-board minimum wage hike arguments presuppose that those who employ minimum wage workers — who are, by definition, the most unskilled, untrained, fungible people in the national workforce — have an endless supply of money and will simply accept a minimum wage hike without taking any steps to account for their increased costs.  If you know anyone who has worked as a manager of a fast-food restaurant, you know that assumption is fantasyland.

hqdefaultSome municipalities have increased the minimum wage anyway.  So, how is it working?  While the data is preliminary, it seems to show what any rational person would suspect — that minimum wage increases affect hiring.  A recent economic research study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco concluded that “the overall body of recent evidence suggests that the most credible conclusion is a higher minimum wage results in some job loss for the least-skilled workers—with possibly larger adverse effects than earlier research suggested.”  The study adds that “allowing for the possibility of larger job loss effects, based on other studies, and possible job losses among older low-skilled adults, a reasonable estimate based on the evidence is that current minimum wages have directly reduced the number of jobs nationally by about 100,000 to 200,000, relative to the period just before the Great Recession.”  And more recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor suggests that hiring slowed in those locations where the minimum wage was increased.

I’m sure the minimum wage hike advocates will dispute the data, or argue in the alternative that the better earnings by the employed more than compensate for any job loss that might have occurred.  Such arguments seem to me to be both misguided — wouldn’t we rather have more people working, and taking that first step up the job progress ladder? — and short-sighted.  If employers of minimum wage workers are cost-sensitive, as the data is indicating, they’ll look for other ways to avoid paying wages that are too high as a result of governmental fiat.  As the Washington Post has reported, one option that is being explored is increased reliance on machinery and robotics in places like fast-food restaurants, which already have seen declines in worker employment.

Let’s not kid ourselves.  Hiking the minimum wage is no panacea, and we don’t live in a fairyland where employers have endless supplies of money.  Don’t be surprised if, in a few months or years, you don’t see that teenager behind the counter at your favorite fast food restaurant and are served your burger by Robbie the Robot instead.