Could humans replace robots? (That’s not a typo)

When we teach students about robotics, it’s important to give them the big picture of why robotics is important. To do that it’s best to steer clear of the cliché that ‘Robotics are replacing people.’

So don’t you love this story that humans are being given back jobs that robots are not good at? Mercedes and Toyota have begun this, which is a surprise considering Toyota set the standard for automation in its factories. Remember ‘Lexus and the Olive Tree‘ in which Thomas Freedman described how cars were being manufactured by industrial robots?

Turns out humans, though easy to lay off, are better at keeping pace with changes and problem-solving.”The variety is too much to take on for the machines,” observed the head of production at Merc. They realize that humans are better at individualization, and dealing with variations. Robots, on the other hand, while they never need a lunch break of a sick day, work appear to be unable “to keep pace with changes.”

The point is not to teach young people to design robots that will replace human input but to manage them, and work alongside them.

If you subscribe to the opposite view, that robots are replacing humans, this story proves your point. It is a robot called Eve, a ‘robotic scientist’ that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the University of Manchester.

Hot, Flat and … intolerant (and why it’s going to change)

Yesterday we had a book discussion on Thomas Friedman‘s Hot, Flat and Crowded.  There was a good cross section of people, and I truly enjoyed the student perspective on the key things Friedman diagnoses as the problems in the US (isolationism, infrastructure and nation building) we need to fix.

What timing! This was first of 4 sessions here at the Decision Theater, a place where we look at alternative  scenarios and sustainable futures.

The dominant metaphor in the book is the US consulate in Istanbul that was built so secure, it’s a place where “birds don’t fly.”

Having covered the technology space for awhile, this isolationist metaphor seems at odds with what’s going on in the US with regard to collaboration and connectivity. We build open source platforms for business, gaming, virtual worlds and education. We invented wikis and blogs and send the opposite message outside our borders. Obviously we are not singing from the same song sheet, –as this T-shirt at a rally reflects. (Guess who’s rally that might be?)

As we saw last night, hot, flat and intolerant is a losing proposition.

Fifteen candles for the Web. Or what did Tim Berners-Lee unleash?

April 30th was a big day, in case it did not pop up in your Gmail calendar, Plaxo reminder or ToDoPub, the online to-do list.

I first heard it was the official birthday of the Web from a colleague, when he complained that someone had hacked into his web site. I suppose it was a *wicked* way of highlighting the awesome power now in our hands.

Fifteen years ago, Tim Berners-Lee unleashed this power when he applied hypertext (standing on the shoulder of Ted Nelson who conceived of the idea) and came up with the HTTP part of the web that’s almost invisible now, but knits the world together.

For some like the Magazine and Newspaper industry, ‘unleashed’ really became ‘unraveled.’ For others like Netflix, there would have been no business without this invention.

Fifteen candles later, this simple, almost invisible connective tissue of the web has reconfigured the way we communicate, market, educate and inspire each other. Oh yes, also how we find, rant, share and take notes among other things. I’ve written a lot about Wikinomics, and its malcontents and sometimes wonder if the information overload is slowing us down, rather than speeding us up. Birthdays are good times to look forward, back and sideways, aren’t they?

Recently I found an old printout of the famous “Rudman and Hart Report, (published eight months before 9/11) which had forecast in grim detail some of America’s vulnerabilities. It made a point of warning us that “new technologies will divide the world as well as draw it together.”

That irony strikes me as exactly what the web is good at –simultaneously connecting and dividing. It has made the world smaller and unified at one level, while fragmenting it into millions of niches. Or, as Thomas Friedman observed in The World is Flat, the ‘steroids’ (applications like wireless and file sharing) and the other flatteners like off-shoring, in-sourcing and open-sourcing are pulling the world in all directions. There are walled gardens like Facebook and there are open source textboooks.

And none of this could have happened without what Mr. Berners-Lee invented. Standing on the shoulder of this giant, companies such as iTunes took online music out of the the piracy world and into a business model that defies a label. Is it an application, a library, or a sharing platform? Basecamp takes files sharing into the realm of project management. There are hundreds of other examples. Without the web 1.0, there would have been no web 2.0.

As we head down the road to web 3.0, let’s tip our hats to Tim Berners-Lee.

Quotes for the week ending 3 May, 2008

“This is not an energy policy. This is money laundering.”

Thomas Friedman, on the ‘gas-tax holiday’ proposed by John McCain and Hillary Clinton.

“A widget is nothing more than a rich media ad with a ‘grab it’ button.”

Chris Cunningham of AppSavvy, in MediaPost’s Online Media Daily.

“But then a miracle happened. My computer died -like, really died.”

Christina Caldwell, in The State Press, on how how she discovered a life outside the “toxic” Internet thanks to a computer crash.

“Put up or shut up.”

Arizona’s Sheriff, Joe Arpaio, on religious, law enforcement and Hispanic leaders criticizing his immigration sweeps.

“I’m hoping that going forward, the Frank Eliasons of the world — whether they communicate via Twitter or elsewhere — will not only be commonplace but corporate priorities.”

Catherine P. Taylor, writing about the Twitter guy, Frank Eliason, at Comcast, responding to customer complaints.

“I took part in a photo shoot that was supposed to be ‘artistic’ and now, seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed.”

Miley Cyrus, apologizing for the indecent exposure she gave –and got– doing an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot for Vanity Fair magazine.