Ever since the first caveman rolled a wheel instead of shouldering a load, the human race has been looking for ways to make life easier. TV dinners, answering machines, central heating, the automobile: the history of innovation is the Herculean effort to do less.
Our expanding waistlines aside, much of this automation has had very tangible benefits in terms of improving efficiency and freeing people from oppressive labors. Since the low-hanging fruit has long ago been picked (by a machine) what are the next frontiers of automation, and how will they affect our lives?
Science-fiction fantasists have long dreamed of a "robot butler" who would do all the things a human could do, but without pay or feelings of guilt by the employer. Robots already operate in our midst, though they're less anthropomorphic than you might think. At The Atlantic's Big Science Summit in October, presenters shared the next steps in the brave new world of automation.
Yoky Matsuoka came to the U.S. from Japan in an attempt to become a professional tennis player. She failed. But in the wake of that disappointment she won a MacArthur genius grant in part because of her dream of building a tennis-playing robot whose skills she could dial up or down depending on how well she was playing on any given day.
Matsuoka eventually turned her skill set towards automated "smart homes" and designed the beautifully efficient Nest thermostat. Like a good butler, the Nest learns the patterns of the homeowner and then automatically adjusts the HVAC systems for maximum efficiency. No more heating an empty house all day, no more arriving home to a frigid living room. The Nest does one thing ... and it does it perfectly, far better than a human being ever could.
Or take Microsoft's quest for the perfect office assistant. Chief Research Officer Rick Rashid envisions a day when passive calendars and email alerts will give way to a proactive system. "In the old days," he says, "it was all about human initiative ... the device was deaf, dumb, and blind." But new devices have GPS, access to all the information on the Internet, and they can learn your priorities.
Your virtual assistant can figure out that you need to end a phone call because of bad traffic on the way to your next appointment, or it might tell you to ignore your dry cleaning and focus on the unread email from your boss. Rashid's team is even teaching the assistant to be polite and tactful, just like a great teammate should be.
Recently the management wizards at McKinsey Consulting have championed "The Internet of Things." And while the moniker is a little clunky, the idea crystallizes how automation can transform the cascade of small decisions made every day by both corporations and consumers. The process usually begins with installing a Radio Frequency ID (RFID) at which point, according to McKinsey, "objects can both sense the environment and communicate, they become tools for understanding complexity and responding to it swiftly." The possibilities are endless: grocery items that drop in price to entice specific targeted customers as they pass by; tractors that employ satellite data and field-level sensors to know how much fertilizer to apply to different parts of the farm; an implanted heart monitor that alerts both doctor and patient to a dangerous change in cardiac rhythm. When we say "automation" we think of robots; instead it may just be high-volume Internet traffic.
Automation reaches its highest use when we can pawn off tasks that are too difficult, too tedious, or too dangerous to accomplish with our own hands. Fiona Harrison, principal investigator for NASA's NuStar explorer mission, is an "astronaut" who never leaves the ground. She says that using telescopes and remote probes we can already explore space more effectively than a manned mission ever could. That's great ... but it's also profoundly sad. What do we lose as a nation when we shutter our space program and concede that our last great frontiersmen can effectively retire?
Charles Elachi, who helped lead the recent Mars Rover mission concedes that "the solar system is not a very friendly place." And yet he laments the possibility that we may simply focus on results and outsource our dreams to robots. "Great countries don't necessarily have to do everything for science," he says, "not necessarily for science or for direct profit, but for the human spirit."
Perhaps we should be searching for a perfect middle ground, where automation augments tasks that we already excel at. Take the very real phenomenon of robot-assisted surgery, for example. This doesn't mean that a cyborg cuts you open; instead a doctor sits at a high-tech console adjacent to the surgical theatre, guiding multiple mechanical arms that hover over the patient. Almost like a video game, the computer interprets the doctor's hand motions and translates them into action. Not only are the robot arms immune to tremors, bobbles, and fatigue, but they can perform precision microsurgery that our clumsy hands can not. The doctor is still there to provide the kind of emergency decision-making (and human warmth) than a robot isn't capable of, but the collaboration of man and machine yields impressive results.
We've come to the point where we attempt to mechanize anything that involves heavy effort or extreme risk. And yet there's something about actually working for ourselves that is quintessentially human. If we give away all of our core functions, what will we do with all of the time available to us ... and what will it say about our priorities as people?