Sunday, 26 June 2011

I wouldn't stand in its way

My Sunday breakfast ritual includes reading the latest New Scientist magazine over cereal and coffee. Well, when I say "read", I mean skim through mostly, and read a few articles that catch my eye (which always includes all of Feedback, of course).

This week there is an article called "Brain Donors", on how humans can help AIs do their jobs. It includes the sentence:
If a machine cannot understand what you are saying or move around safely, how can you expect it to load your dishwasher?
a Japanese robot washing up
This made me flash back to a plot element from Robert Heinlein's 1956 novel The Door into Summer (which I read in the 1970s, where the "present" part is set, with its "future" part being set ages away, in that shiny futuristic year 2000). In this the hero, Daniel Boone Davis, is an inventor, wanting to invent stuff to help ordinary people. He invents "Drafting Dan" to help him draft the blueprints of his inventions, and "Flexible Frank" to help around the house. In the book, the emphasis is on mechanical reproduction of the ways things are currently done by people. Drafting Dan never happened, but CAD has. Flexible Frank, washing up standing at the kitchen sink, never happened, but dishwashers have.

In other words, the technology that replaces human effort doesn't just trivially reproduce the human behaviour (washing up at the sink): it reproduces the desired effect of that behaviour (clean dishes), but in a way more appropriate to a mechanised solution.

robot loading a dishwasher (with plastic dishes)
I first experienced a dishwasher at a friend's house in 1977: despite having offered, I was delighted that I didn't have to help wash up after lunch, and thrilled instead to help load this marvellous machine. I was skeptical of the amused claim that "loading and unloading it becomes the chore". Even now, although I no longer positively enjoy the loading task, I still find in preferable to the real chore. But if a robot wanted to do it instead, I wouldn't stand in its way.

However, the moral of this tale is that technology solves our problems in ways different from how we solve them. So I should no more expect this latest chore to be eased by a robot loading a dishwasher, than to expect a robot to stand at the sink washing up.

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