Wednesday, October 13, 2010

More Stupid Ideas

A friend of mine told me that over in Jolly Olde England, there are surveillance cameras everywhere now. And that, a friend of his sits around in his apartment watching feed from cameras that are in a department store. If he happens to catch a shoplifter on the telly, he phones it in for security at the store to nab the malefactor. If the shoplifter is caught, the watcher receives a reward, which is a percentage of the stolen item.

So, all I have to do is find out who is watching what, have an accomplice, who stops by the watcher's apartment and distracts him by, oh, I don't know, pretending to be a Jehovah's Witness or something.

Meanwhile I, trench-coated and wearing a fake beard and a pony tail wig, grab everything that isn't nailed down in the place.

No? Well, actually this rather peculiar occupation, security watcher, or what would you call it, gave me another stupid idea.

Robots and computers are very good at performing tasks for which a specific and detailed rule set can be laid out - playing chess (Big Blue), welding and cutting metal (CNC lathes and factory robots). What they are terrible at are tasks that have ambiguous or nebulous skill sets, generalized things that require adaptive thinking, or a sense of nuance or intuition, or are dependent upon context. Tasks like translating languages, or rearranging a living room, or mixing a drink to taste, or exploring. There are lots of things like this that human beings are supremely good at, and probably will be for a long time to come.

So, for example, a gentleman's gentleman sounds like a good job for a robot, but robots would be absolutely terrible at it. Ah, but a remotely piloted robot, one that is operated by a person, would actually be a pretty good butler.

"Well, that's just fucking stupid, John" you say, "Why not just hire a real butler?"

Well, yeah, but butlers aren't used all the time are they? And some guy sitting on an oversized couch in his soiled undies in an apartment, wearing video game gear and multitasking perhaps four or five butlers might be cheaper. Don't you think? Even make it a game that you get paid for. The perfect skill set for today's slackers.

Serisously though, I think you will see a lot more of these remotely piloted devices, and not just for the boneheaded purpose of bombing people using unmanned drones. The deep sea remotely piloted submersibles used in the BP fiaso is a good example. Allowing people to perform dangerous tasks without risk, and giving robots an intelligence and mental flexibility they will never possess, seems like a win/win to me. Think of the Chilean miners they are rescuing. What if they had been piloting mining robots? Why not?

*FYI: The picture is a portrayal of a famous automaton called The Mechanical Turk. This was a chess-playing robot of the 19th century which actually had a human operator hidden within it.

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