Will robots take all our jobs someday?

  • TECH
  • Friday, 09 Dec 2016

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In the HBO series Westworld, artificial intelligence is a thing to be feared if you happen to be a tourist in the about-to-go-haywire theme park. 

But in reality, artificial intelligence will probably help humanity, not hurt it. Just look at self-driving cars, your smartphone and super computers capable of helping doctors find the most effective cancer treatments. 

This week, some of the nation's top minds in robotics, industry and academia are gathering at Rice University to discuss the intersection of technology and jobs during the 10th annual De Lange Conference. 

"What do we do in a world where machines make machines?" asked Rice University President David Leebron. 

It's a good question. 

Moshe Vardi, a computer science professor at Rice, began thinking about the future of manufacturing long before Donald Trump made it part of his campaign platform. You can read more about Vardi in a Planet Texas post here. 

He points to data that shows manufacturing jobs disappearing while output continues to increase, a tangible consequence of machines doing work that people once did. 

"We have to figure out what we are going to do," he told conference attendees Dec 5. "So one idea is to have this public policy discussion." 

Vardi and other conference speakers said automation should command the same kind of discussion as climate change. 

That discussion is probably a little overdue, given the tremendous advances in technology in recent years. 

Manuela Veloso, a computer science professor from Carnegie Mellon University, showed videos of robots roaming her school's hallways, escorting visitors to various offices, fetching coffee and delivering messages. 

These service robots, called "CoBots," have the ability to perceive, think and act, she said. 

"We don't even know what it knows," she said of the CoBots' ability to learn from new situations and save that information for future use. 

Maybe hitting a little closer to home are drones, now being used for everything from delivering packages to surveying orchards for bad apples. 

It's estimated that "unmanned aerial vehicles" currently support a US$15bil (RM66.27bil) industry, which is projected to grow by US$10bil (RM44.18bil) in four years. 

Vijay Kumar, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's school of engineering, is working to develop drones powered by smartphones. 

Called "Phlones," the devices have the potential to put drone technology in the hands of everyone who owns a smartphone. 

Despite the far-reaching implications of such technology, Kumar and others who spoke at the conference Monday don't believe that machines are capable of taking all of our jobs. 

For starters, a computer's ability to crunch realms of data doesn't translate into real knowledge, Kumar said. 

Also, machines and humans can't collaborate, a skill that's often needed to spin ideas forward. 

"I think a lot of the fears are irrational in a certain context," he said. 

Kumar and others emphasised that machines of the future will help humans, not make them non-essential. 

To that point, Guruduth Banavar of IBM said supercomputers like Watson, the machine responsible for beating Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings in 2011, will be tools for the 21st century, helping doctors find more effective cancer treatments, helping business executives formulate new operating strategies and assisting with financial planning. 

"Our ultimate vision is that every single professional in the world will have Watson as a cognitive assistant," he said. — Houston Chronicle/Tribune News Service 

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