Chocolate and Gold Coins

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Can It Flip a Burger?

Click on this link to go to the homepage of Honda’s human-like robot named Asimo. You have probably seen clips of Asimo walking and shaking hands. But here is the trillion-dollar question:
Can it flip a burger?
Can it dunk the fries into the hot oil?
Can it push the burger button on the cash machine and ask: “Would you like fries with that?”
Or could it clean your house, mow your lawn, and maybe even cook your meals?

The answer to all of those questions is “No” because, like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, Asimo doesn’t have a brain. Today’s computers give Asimo the intelligence of a cockroach (at best). It may be 30 to 60 years before an economically practical computer brain is developed.

But brains are not a scarce commodity in the world. India and China each have over one billion people. Probably every one of these people has a brain and most them are not really using their brains very much. Maybe Asimo could use their brains.

I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, Dr. Frankenstein. You can’t take somebody’s brain, it comes with the body.”

The Brain in India


Maybe we can rent the brain. Imagine that Ahmed of Ahmedabad wears a suit with sensors on it and a helmet. When Ahmed raises his hand, Asimo raises its hand. When Ahmed steps forward, Asimo steps forward. When Ahmed twists his head, Asimo twists its head, and Ahmed sees what things that are around Asimo in Ahmed’s helmet. And when Ahmed sees the spatula and grabs for it, Asimo grasps it. Ahmed might be very happy to do this all day for just a few dollars. This link to Toyota’s humanoid robot shows how it will be done.

If you haven’t heard, McDonald’s has already begun outsourcing some of their jobs. Could McDonald’s outsource all of their restaurant jobs?

And now we return to the trillion-dollar question: “Can Ahmed and Asimo flip a burger?” Take a moment to really consider this possibility. Asimo belongs to Honda, and the automaker can mass-produce these things in no time. So can Toyota and Sony. And there are billions of people who could do the role that Ahmed played above. Consider the possibility of maybe one or two billion extra people working every day in the U.S. economy. Perhaps the robot revolution will be with us in three-to-six years and not thirty-to-sixty years.

Let me coin a term HCR: (Human-Controlled Robot). Soon HCRs may be more common than hybrid cars.

The HCR revolution might also help you telecommute. You don’t have to go in to the office just to sit in a meeting. You can have a robot at your office be ready to be “you” whenever your presence is necessary. You can send your robot to the meeting and see and hear everything you would have if you had been there. And if you think you will doze off, you can lower the volume so no one hears you snore.

Of course, Rahul in Mumbai could be able to telecommute in the U.S. then as well, and maybe do your job for a whole lot less money. You have to have a job that no one in India is good at. Government jobs are secure.

The Fallout of the HCR Revolution


When the revolution comes, will we be prepared for the consequences? We will love having an army of cheap servants clean our homes and cook our meals, but these HCRs will make the bottom 10 or 20 percent of wage earners not only unemployed but also unemployable. One approach is too say “Go start a blog or something” and let them fend for themselves. No one owes them a living. However, these people vote and politicians will use their anger for their own political gain. This is the major point; there is a lot at stake here for the whole deal to be scuttled by an old-fashioned who-gets-the-pie fight.

The HCR revolution is probably just around the corner and it may make most Americans enormously wealthy. Most people might be able to live like kings, with servants to do every onerous task that we dislike. It will also make many of the goods we buy (like the hamburgers) much less expensive. There is enough wealth in this new deal to make everyone better off. So in the spirit of Vilfredo Pareto, let us make a deal with the potential losers in this exchange. We give the poor a subsidized wage that will give everyone at least a modest living: maybe $7 per hour, guaranteed by the Federal Government. In return, the middle class and rich get the benefit of unrestricted access to the U.S. market for these new robots and their foreign operators.

As for me, I want at least four HCRs: one to clean the toilets and the inside of my house, one to take care of the yard, one to cook the meals, and a fourth one to keep this blog going while I work at the office. I can’t wait.

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