Saturday 03 Dec 2016

Robotic Rant
David Simmonds

I’m not sure I’m ready for another revolution. We’ve had the computer revolution, then the globalization revolution. Next on deck is the robotics revolution; or so says Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times. 

Robotics, that’s robots. When I think robots, I think of clunky, lights-flashing creatures that talk in monotonic loops and end up walking into walls, falling over and overheating. Today, that is only one type of robot, the so called “humanoid” robot,’ but what an improvement there has been. Take the NAO robot from Alderan Labs. The YouTube videos show it dancing to Michael Jackson, interrupting its master to tell stories, and even fishing socks out of a basket to attract attention. Who needs a cat when your robot never needs its litter changed and can talk back in English? There’s a song to be written for Barbra Streisand there: “People, people who need humanoid robot companions.”

There’s no doubt a big future for humanoid robots. Friedman gushes that a robot can conduct a symphony orchestra in the morning and does the household chores in the afternoon. Great for clumsy, untidy conductors: I suspect that most of us would be happy just to have a robot to do the dishes.

The broader swath of progress is in robots that aren’t necessarily built to resemble humans, but that can be programmed to become dextrous and eliminate industrial functions otherwise performed by humans. And there is no doubt about their effectiveness. I watched a video of the Mini Cooper production line in England. Robotic arms join, weld and paint at a furious rate. It seems like the only thing that is left to the human staff is to give each vehicle a little tender buffing before it leaves the shop.

There is, however, the small matter of lost jobs. A Philips Electronics plant in the Netherlands has 128 robotic arms to do the same work with “yoga-like flexibility” that ten times as many workers do by hand at another company plant. According to one expert, one robot can replace two skilled North American manufacturing workers, pay for itself within three years and over the life of the robot, deliver millions of dollars in cost savings. With statistics like that, any employer is going to say ‘love those robots.’ Don’t forget, the Chinese are just waiting to pounce. Here’s what the president of Foxconn, the Chinese iPhone assembler, has to say about his plan to add both thousands of additional workers and a million new robots. “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.” He’s casting his lot with the robots.

No doubt the robotics revolution will create some jobs in programming and repairing robotics. But surely it won’t be long until we’ll be programming robots to program and repair robots; and so on until we end up, well, just as people who give a little tender buffing to the robots who run the show. Maybe, considering how our financial markets tanked courtesy of computerized trading programs, we’re already in that era. 

To put the boots to us when we’re down, just up the road come avatars, which are, according to the Canadian Press, “virtual assistants, which will soon dominate customer service.” The upside: they deliver a consistent message and they’re never in a bad mood. We’re going to start finding them at airports, shopping malls, hospitals, governments, wherever you want to ask such questions as “when is garbage day?” or “where can I walk my dog?”. You can create an image, or even a hologram, of whatever person you like to do the speaking, although, presumably, you wouldn’t have a doctor telling you which day is garbage day. 

The challenge, admitted a technology analyst, is that it will “probably put some people out of work.” Yes, I would say that’s right.

How many revolutions can we take in quick succession? They haven’t made life any easier. Instead, change happens to us so fast, to manage it thoughtfully has gone beyond our control. Employment wise, we find ourselves forced on to one of three paths, each bringing its unique stresses: we have the all-consuming skill/knowledge job; the not-enough-to-live-on McJob or the nothing-to-live-on no-job. The no-job is riding up the charts with a bullet, the McJob has got the wind in its sails, and the number of skill/knowledge jobs is probably shrinking. Something has to give.

If only we could turn back the clock and bring back those, in retrospect harmless, overheated robots that bumped into walls and fell over. Them, I could cope with.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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