MIAMISBURG, Ohio—A humanoid robot greets visitors to the Dayton-area offices of Yaskawa Motoman, a Japanese company that produces the machines being installed at thousands of factories around the globe. Its right arm is holding a screen, which playfully challenges visitors to compete with the robot in a manual task: tracing the word YASKAWA as quickly as possible.
It’s a trick, of course: The robot always wins. On the multiple times I tried, I never beat the robot, and lost in both accuracy and speed by large margins. The robot could complete, in just a few seconds, a task that took me eight seconds at my fastest, and much more at my slowest (and most accurate). After it beats the visitor, the robot twirls the screen between its two arms, showing off yet another task that a human can’t do nearly as well. And then, a message pops up on the screen, in bright red: “YOU LOSE. ROBOTS WILL ALWAYS WIN ... ALWAYS!!”
Though the message is tongue-in-cheek, its gist appears to be increasingly true. Robots and algorithms are proving themselves better than humans at a number of tasks, both physical and mental. A Google computer program, AlphaGo, is beating top masters around the world at Go, which is considered one of the world’s most difficult games. San Francisco-based Momentum Machines has unveiled a robot that can make 400 hamburgers in an hour, a much faster rate than humans can. Foxconn, the company that builds electronic devices for companies including Apple and Samsung, is reportedly replacing tens of thousands of factory workers with more-efficient robots.