Archive for August, 2009

More Robots

The other day on my break between classes, I decided to get lunch at one of my favorite fast-food restaurants, Jack in the Box. Inside, to my surprise, I found an ordering kiosk all set up and ready to take orders. I’ve read of these, but hadn’t yet encountered one myself.

Of course, I had to use it. And I found it was pretty simple: just follow the instructions on screen. And my food was ready just as fast as it I had went to a person. I used my debit card but the machine could also take cash and dispense change.

This machine is just one highlight of the incoming robotic revolution. It does a job that supplants a human worker (in this case the cashier). But this particular type of machine does have its flaws. For one, the interface is through touchscreen. People are used to interacting via speech, and prefer to do it that way. For a kiosk like this to really take off, it would need to be able to understand and respond entirely through voice commands. Watching the other people in the restaurant order, all of them preferred to go up to the person behind the counter. One did try the kiosk, but decided to go with the person when the opportunity presented itself.

We are just beginning to see the widespread application of voice-command technology. It has a high computational demand, and is still seen as something of a novelty. But so did the PC, the ATM machine, and the telephone. Once people get over the initial unease, they often quickly realize the potential and embrace new technologies (much more so for younger generations). Coupled with the fact that voice-command technology will very likely get cheaper and higher quality due to Moore’s Law, by 2020 interacting with multiple machines and kiosks solely through voice probably won’t seem strange at all.

Once that happens, we’ll be one giant step closer to the robotic revolution.

The Problem With California

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the state of California is scrambling to fix its budget problems. I live in California, and it’s easy to blame the Governor, or the state legislature for our woes, but really, I think they are simply victims and caught in the middle of what the real cause of our problems is: us.

By which I mean the voters. As an almost too perfect example, I refer you to Proposition 1A, passed last November, a ballot measure that proposed building a high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco, at a cost of nearly $10 billion.

To put it bluntly, we don’t need it. But we passed it and it we now have to borrow $10 billion (because people don’t want their taxes raised) to pay for it. How do I know we don’t need it? Because it isn’t being built already by private industry.

You see, if a high-speed train were really needed, there would be demand for it. If there’s demand for it an investor, or group of investors, will see the opportunity, come in, and fund the project with their own money. That isn’t happening, thus we don’t need it (mostly because of that wonderful new invention call the automobile. And also the airplane).

But the worst part is that they are raising bonds to pay for it, rather than raising taxes. That means the state is going into more debt, and getting further away from a balanced budget. Of course, some might say that the debt will be paid off by passenger fares, but since it’s not needed, who’s going to be riding the train and paying the fare?

To me, it’s like a kid with a credit card thinking “I can buy all this stuff and not pay for it! Hurray!” It’s completely fiscally irresponsible and it’s 100% the people of California’s fault, not the government’s (well, I voted against it because of this, so it’s not my fault). And this is something that can’t be cut from the budget, since it was approved by voters. It would be illegal to remove it. The state of California now must build a high-speed train for $10 billion.

So why is it like this? Why do the people have so much power over the state’s financial affairs? Mostly it has to do with the period when California was first organized into a state, called the Progressive Era. Then, there was widespread distrust of government (much like today) and it was thought that it would be better to put a lot more power into the hands of the people instead of the government. Now, I know too much government power is a bad thing, but too much “people power” can be a very bad thing. Simply because people just don’t have the training and discipline to deal with political and fiscal issues. That’s why we vote people who are trained (ideally) into office. I mean, the voters can amend the state constitution by ballot measure. That’s what Proposition 8 was, which banned same-sex marriage. It is now not just illegal but unconstitutional for any government agency in California to recognize a same-sex marriage.

Perhaps dissolving the state government and drafting a new constitution wouldn’t be such a bad idea. 

Tastes Of Chicken!

The other day I was idly thinking about the ethics of cloned meat. From a biological perspective, it’s exactly the same stuff, it’s just made in a different way. Often, this way is much more efficient than raising animals, and there’s bonus that cloned meat was never actually part of a living animal, and so was never really “killed” to feed us. From both an ethical and practical standpoint, cloned meat seems the way to go. 

I myself love eating meat, but have always been sort of bothered by the fact that it was once an animal. I mean, I know the animal kingdom is a harsh place where animals compete and eat one another, and that we, arguably, are just competing better. So it hasn’t really stopped me from eating it.

But then I started extending the argument, as I always do, to its logical extreme. If it’s ok to clone beef, pork, chicken, etc., what about animals that we don’t normally eat due to practical or cultural values. For example, is it wrong to eat a cloned horse steak? It was never actually part of a real living horse. A horse didn’t have to die to provide you with the steak, just donate  a small sample of its DNA. Or how about cloning dog or cat or dolphin? Or, what about cloning endangered animal meat.

Or, taking it to the logical conclusion, what if we cloned human meat? Again, a cloned human steak was never part of a person. I don’t know if I’d want to eat human, but I might try just to see. You never know, it might be really good.

Even more bizarre (if you can imagine that), what if you cloned your own meat? You could have a slice of you. I don’t know. I don’t imagine that many people would want to eat human meat, but there probably is at least a small market out there. Maybe that’s one future industry that will develop.

The Robotic Revolution Is Happening Already

Today I read an article about how the United States Post Office may close up to 1,000 of its offices, putting thousands of its employees out of work. It’s quite interesting that the primary cause of this is, unsurprisingly, the Internet:

The local post office long has been the center of many American communities, but with people turning increasingly to the Internet to send messages and pay bills, financial losses are forcing the Postal Service to consider consolidating or closing hundreds of local facilities. [emphasis mine]

This is directly what will happen in the next few decades for nearly every business. Automation doesn’t necessary entail humanoid robots (though that will be a large segment of it), it could be something as simple as a piece of software. The automated ordering system I suggested to my company  is just that: a piece of software that does the job of hundreds of human workers at a tiny fraction of the cost while doing a far better job than any human can possibly do.

Of course, there’s still need for postal employees currently because there still are pieces of mail which have to be hand delivered (like packages). I myself am currently expecting a couple of packages (though thinking about it, everything I am expecting is a form of digital media, and could theoretically just be streamed over the Internet. In the next ten to twenty years, physical media like CDs and DVDs will likely completely vanish and we’ll be able to stream whatever we want instantly.)

Of course, what are the employees laid off going to do? They may be able to get jobs elsewhere, eventually, but where. You see the thing that took their jobs (the Internet), doesn’t require as many people to operate. When you send an email, the delivery is handled completely autonomously. When you send a letter, a number of people have to sort it, deliver it, sort it again, etc. The only need for people when dealing with the Internet, is for maintenance, troubleshooting, and designing new sites.

And, of course, you might think, “we’ll customers prefer interacting with people than machines.” but that isn’t what we’re seeing. If it was, this wouldn’t be happening. Eventually, machines will be able to do all jobs, and do them much better than flesh-and-blood people.