The Robot is Boss09-05-2010
John Markoff has a new installment in The New York Times Smarter Than You Think Series today, The Boss is Robotic, And Rolling Up Behind You. After an earlier article looking at the use of robots in the classroom, here Markoff looks at the use of robots to enhance and expand the reach of those in higher level management situations. The importance of these articles is that the robots Markoff is investigating are not for low-level menial tasks like factory work or giving solace to elderly patients. The great change coming to our economy and our lives is that the automation of handwork that has hollowed out the lives of so many lower class laborers is coming now to the professions usually thought immune to the threats of automation. As robots get smarter and more mobile, the human advantages of thinking and walking are being whittled away.
With the help of RP-7i, a robot from InTouch Health, Dr. Alan Shatzel can sit at home and role into a patient's room at any hospital where an RP-7i is stationed.
The advantage of the RP-7i is that the doctor can "be in the room," not only hearing and seeing as if on a teleconference call, but being present via what is referred to as "telepresence." The doctor can speak with the patient, zoom in on the monitors, note the way he uses their hands or curl their lips. As Dr. John Whapham who also uses a RP-7i says of the experience:
You're live, and you can walk around, examine, image, zoom in and out. I do it all the time.
Markoff explores a number of these new telepresence robots and notes that these robots offer the promise of enhancing the work of doctors as well as other professionals. These professionals will be freed from their physical offices even more so than they are currently.
In addition, they will be able to work in many locations at once. From an economic perspective, one can easily imagine a hospital or chain of hospitals reducing the number of chief surgeons from say 10 to 5, as those five now sit in a control room monitoring different groups of patients via different telepresences in different hospitals. Whereas for centuries automation was largely seen as a threat to the lower and menial workers, advances in technology are now threatening to transform the work of the most highly educated elite.
Finally, these telepresence robots are not mere cost-cutting devices, although they are that as well.
For now, most of the mobile robots, sometimes called telepresence robots, are little more than ventriloquists' dummies with long, invisible strings. But some models have artificial intelligence that lets them do some things on their own, and they will inevitably grow smarter and more agile. They will not only represent the human users, they will augment them.
Soon these robots will, as Markoff writes, include artificial intelligence features that will enhance the surgeon's own human capacities. The robots will have have infinite data-storing capacities to access records of past procedures and scan a patients entire medical history. There is little doubt that as these machines progress quickly, they will be second-guessing and advising the doctors who control them.
So what does it mean that the robots will augment their human users?
1. Economically, the world will have use for far fewer highly-trained doctors. I have written about how robots are replacing teachers as well. This is part of the more general attack that computers and robots pose for the middle and even upper-middle classes in the next few decades. As my colleague Walter Russell Mead writes in his recent blogpost:
The upper middle class benefited over the last generation from a rising difference between the living standards of professional and blue collar American workers. This is likely to change; from civil service jobs in government to university professors, lawyers, health care personnel, middle and upper middle management in the private sector, the upper-middle class is going to face a much harsher environment going forward. Automation, outsourcing and unremitting pressures to control costs are going to squeeze upper middle class incomes. What blue collar workers faced in the last thirty years is coming to the white collar workforce now.
2. Medical care will change as doctors work alongside artificial intelligence robots. Just as computer assisted chess players make fewer mistakes and take fewer chances so that more games end in draws, computer-assisted medicine will become more careful and proficient.
Those familiar with Hannah Arendt's work will recall her own certainty that the rise of automation would soon have an extraordinary impact on our world. Her worry was that humans today are simply not prepared for a life in which most of us will not have jobs because there will not much left for humans to do that computers and robots cannot. Thus at the very time when automation promises to realize the ancient dream of freeing us from the necessity to labor, we humans don't know what to do with our time outside of our work. The threat of automation, she writes, is political as much as it is economic. But more on this later.
Read more of Markoff's article here: