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Robots Aren't as 'Smart'​ As You Think

Fear-mongering that robots will take over your job is off-base. The future of work is better with a human-robot partnership

Oct 14 2019 Our Perspective 3 minutes, 46 seconds
Robots Aren't as 'Smart'​ As You Think

So many people ask me, sometimes rather sheepishly, whether robots are going to take over jobs and render people obsolete. I understand why they'd be anxious; on any given day yet another article speculates how people will be displaced by automatons that are more productive and less costly than a flesh-and-blood worker. But what's often overlooked, and under-reported is the reality that robots just aren't smart enough to entirely replace human labor.

The truth is that robots in their current form are fairly 'dumb.' For decades, popular culture portrayed robots as fantastical creations of the imagination. As a result, people who grew up watching “The Terminator,” “Wall-E” and the like don’t understand how robots and AI work together, and this often leads to misperceptions.

There is a lot of confusion about what robots can (and cannot) do, so it’s unsurprising that there is a lot of fear-mongering about the robotic workforce of tomorrow. In reality, physics and practicality dictate how robots work, and they’re far from being the sophisticated, smart automatons dreamed up and portrayed by Hollywood.

It is incredibly challenging to produce intricate, innovative mechanisms, to say nothing of how expensive and inefficient the fictional machines portrayed in science fiction narratives would be. “Smart” robots, AI-enabled robots, perform single functions in a constrained environment incredibly well, and they can repeat that task over and over without getting bored or worn-out. Robots are awesome at vacuuming your carpet, glazing 500 donuts at a time, or dispensing your salad, but they cannot perform an intricate sequence of actions like a CP-30.

That's why many robots operate as essentially stationary devices, and almost none are truly autonomous. A factory can affix 75 windshields an hour on Lexus cars thanks to a strong robotic arm with a simple repetitive algorithm. But for the most part, these robots operate in constrained areas because factories need them to perform the same task over and over again, safely. Due to their heavy weight and limited capabilities, they’re not leaving specific factories or back-room operations anytime soon. This includes wholly non-autonomous tele-sensing “Waldo” mechanical arms that only amplify a human’s own actions, as well as advanced, near-autonomous machines that nonetheless still need people for programming, troubleshooting, power, etc. We’re still far from a robotic takeover of the workforce because robots aren’t nearly as smart as most people think.

Instead, they’re enhancing our workforce. Robots are performing the most arduous, dangerous, and monotonous tasks, from welding large, bulky car parts together to autonomously transporting heavy supplies from one location to another, and much more. But they're working in conjunction with human colleagues. Robots can help prep a dinner service, but they cannot replace the chef who tastes and adjusts the seasoning according to her or his tastebuds. Robots can help streamline certain kitchen stations, freeing up staff to better serve the front-of-the-house, but they cannot replace the emotional or sensitive touch that a person provides by interacting with the front of the house and beyond.

Within the restaurant industry, there’s a lot of excitement about the opportunities robotics can provide, creating new, innovative blueprints for the modern kitchen. I’m thrilled that so many professionals are open to the possible solutions that robotics offers. But why is there a focus on developments like robotic arms that can flip your burgers, dispense your salads, or froth your cappuccinos? These are terrific advances. Yet, they can only perform specific tasks and they’re not working with or aiding their human colleagues—yet—in ways that are globally accepted by kitchen operators.

In this way, robots are too “dumb” to adequately replace a workforce. They require people to solve problems, apply adjustments based on human senses, and to communicate in ways that robots are not able to do. Robotics are revolutionizing the kitchens of today in ways that will benefit the workforce of tomorrow. They empower people to engage in more rewarding, engaging, safer work while the Wall-Es of the workforce will shoulder the burden of the more unsafe, tedious tasks that often result in worker burnout or dissatisfaction.

The simple truth is that robots need people to maximize their potential. A robotic vacuum needs a person to empty its dustbin. Salad making-robots need people to feed them ingredients to assemble. Similarly, smoothie-making robots still need people to load fruit into the machine. These devices are not yet wholly able to do a task end to end. Rather, working together, robots and people can complete tasks and uplift the entire workplace by simplifying the job, making processes easier, and creating happier working environments.

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