There is much anxiety this spring about the coming of our Robot Overlords. What with self-driving cars, Hollywood sex robots, and how robots will take our jobs; who wouldn’t be worried?
It’s not surprising, then, to see some pushback. You know, stories that tell us about “things that people do better than robots”. Unfortunately, these stories usually depress me even more.
Case in point, Steve Henn’s piece for NPR, “Robots Are Really Bad At Folding Towels”.
The basic point is that many simple tasks, such as sorting laundry, are very difficult for robots to learn. “Once you start working in robotics,” he says, “you realize that things that kids learn to do up to age 10 … are actually the hardest things to get a robot to do.” says Pieter Abbeel of U. C. Berkeley.
This actually makes tons of sense, if you consider humans to be an embodied mind, which spends the first ten years learning to use its body and embedded senses. Only later do we spend a lot of time and energy on social and computational problems outside the body.
If this picture is reasonable, then teaching a non-human robot to act the way a human body does, and to simulate the behavior of an embodied mind without the body, is going to really hard. Note that this isn’t a question of how clever robots are, it entirely depends on our deep need to compare them to ourselves.
From this point of view, it is easy to see that robot cars makes sense (humans are terrible at driving), sex-bots are iffy (eventually, sex has to be about bodies, IMO), and stealing your job, unfortunately, is quite likely. Jobs were not designed for embodied minds, we have to learn, adapt, and adopt jobs. Robots will mostly kick our butts.
Furthermore, if they need towels folded, which I doubt, our Robot Overlords can hire or force some puny human to do it.