October 28, 2013

The robots are coming! (But where did all the robots of yesteryear go?)

Robots have been back in the news for several years, with many weighty discourses about the future of the economy after the robots have taken over. This always reminds me that back around 1984, the Proctor & Gamble headquarters in Cincinnati had robots delivering the mail. I practically had a heart attack the first time I saw one, when the elevator opened and the robot mail cart inside beeped at me to get out of the way, robot coming through!

But the existence of 1980s robot mail carts seems to have been almost forgotten, and remarkably difficult to prove they'd ever really even existed. I finally found online confirmation that I wasn't just hallucinating. The Nobel prize winner in literature, travel writer V.S. Naipaul, wrote in his 1989 nonfiction book A Turn in the South about visiting the Nissan factory in Smyrna, TN:
In an open office area we saw a robot mail cart. It ran on a chemical strip laid into the gray carpet. The mail cart made the rounds of offices and halted at certain spots, not moving on again until someone pressed a strip at the top. If a person got in its way the cart beeped.

You can see the problem: the robot cart didn't have hands to lay the mail in the secretary's inbox, so if nobody was there to take the mail off its nonhands, it would eventually have to roll onward. Better to develop email.


Anonymous said...

I had an awesome children's picture book from the early 80s that showed all the ways robots would help us in the future, such the robot maids who would clean homes. They looked rather like the head of the Forbidden Planet robot on the body of a Dr. Who Dalek.

Who has closet space for that?

Anonymous said...

Roombas are nice if you have big open carpeted areas. However, these are also the easiest areas for human vacuumers. They are also messy and hard to empty. With frequent use they require a new battery every year, $70 on top of the initial $300.

Dave Pinsen said...

Robots made more of an impact on the factory floor in the 1980s. Even moreso today. That has eliminated a lot of factory jobs, but it has made the remaining factory jobs better. That's something Becker or Posner (I forget which) seems to have missed. One of them blogged a while back something to the effect that we shouldn't be concerned that service jobs paid more than factory jobs because factory jobs were dirty and unsafe and miserable places to work. Which seems to be wrong on all counts when it comes to the highly automated factories built by the likes of Mercedes in the US.

Anonymous said...

In the Cadbury chocolate factory in Birmingham UK around 1972 I saw the same sort of robot carts - can't remember what they were transporting. They followed white lines painted on the floor.

Aleph Olef said...

In a world containing Obama, Israel and Putin, robots are worrying. So is this:

The kit that lets you control a cockroach’s brain

Robomayor Eric Garcetti said...

"But where did all the robots of yesteryear go?"

Los Angeles city hall...

Ladies and Gentlemen, I introduce Robomayor Eric Garcetti

sunbeam said...

I think the need for mail dropped. Not too much later email came into widespread use.

Essentially the printed memo disappeared for all practical purposes.

Joe Schmoe said...

The Los Angeles Times printing facility in downtown LA has robots that carry giant rolls of newsprint. That whole factory is pretty amazing. They have a monthly tour - you should check it out.

It is the most fascinating place you've ever seen. The tour guide said that it is the most advanced newspaper print shop ever built — and, for obvious reasons, it's also the most advanced print shop that will ever be built.

The most interesting thing is it uses the most advanced technology available in 1987. Think of a IBM PC from 1987, or a cell phone from 1987, and then imagine corporate-grade technology that is ten times more advanced (in 1987 terms) because it cost millions of dollars (in 1987), and you'll get the idea. The ENTIRE BUILDING is like that — the most advanced technological marvel available, circa 1987. It is SO cool because it looks advanced and sophisticated, yet old. It is high technology frozen in time, like going into a clean room with an old DEC mainframe computer with rolls of magnetic tape and gigantic cabinets filled with PC boards.

It's hard to visualize, but the instant you set foot in there you will know what I mean. For example, the forklifts that carry the giant, 2000 lb rolls of newsprint are robotic and driverless. But their guidance system is primitive, they follow these metal wires implanted in the floor and have these gigantic rubber bumpers that make them stop if they run into someone; they don't have AI that allows them to drive themselves, avoid pedestrians, etc. And the building is designed to show them off, they are the first thing you see when you enter the lobby. You can imagine how cool that must have looked back in 1987. It still looks really cool, and high tech, but the technology is just different today. You can't really put a finger on it, but you somehow just know that if that factory were designed today, everything would be totally different. The whole thing is just awesome. It is like the ultimate example of old-fashioned industry on a massive scale.

Anonymous said...

I worked in an office that still has one of these, they call it HOMR, I believe.

2Degrees said...

Japan uses lots of robots. We prefer cheap labour.

Pat Boyle said...

Of course the city of Detroit was destroyed by robots.

When the Great Migration ended around the middle of the last century, millions of black field workers had moved north and west from Mississippi and the deep South.

They got union jobs at good wages and great benefits. They got maybe the worst jobs in the factories but still jobs that were vastly better than what they had had before.

Then the robots came.

By the turn of the century, humans had been run out of auto assembly. Watch any episode of "How It's Made" on TV. Today it takes one man to do the work that it formerly took 27.

Those 26 displaced blacks did not find other work. Here in Oakland the blacks who came to build the Liberty Ships and became unemployed after the War, have stayed unemployed. They did not move into all the tech jobs that opened up in nearby Silicon Valley.

The unemployed blacks have just festered in the central cities. They shoot one another and the neighborhoods they occupy crumble.

Detroit and many other central cities have been destroyed by robots - not anthropomorphic robots like Swartzenegger in the movies - but simple auto assembly robots.

It gets worse. Blacks are just the first to be displaced because they are the least talented. The next group to be displaced are probably soldiers and sailors. Or the pilots and astronauts.

If anyone were still building combat fighter planes, the next generation would all be pilotless. No Air Force pilot can dog fight with a plane that is flown by a machine that doesn't feel G's. Drones are the future in air superiority. The same is true for infantry men. Cheap and tough little gun toting robots are available now.

Every teenager on today's streets seems to have a Smart Phone. Last week there was a story about an app that can translate speech into 56 different languages. Everyone will want to have this app when they travel abroad.

But how soon before we have to check with our phone to see if it wants to go abroad too?

Dumb kids with Smart Phones. How soon will the crossover happen?


Kathy Shaidle said...

Robot Hookers of the Near Future:

With apologies to Sailer for implying he was a "barroom bore," re "Where's my flying car?" He invented that line -- I'm talking about the lesser mortals who lifted it.

heartiste said...

Automation is great for sci-fi lubed minds, but this is where robots will have the biggest impact on the ordering of society. Just a matter of time now until creators ascend the Uncanny Valley.

Anonymous said...

I recently watched a children's movie from 1986, Flight of the Navigator, with my young nephews. A robot food cart plays a role in the plot, being introduced early on, and later used as an escape device. Although the movie is science fiction this wasn't an anthropomorphic science fiction robot, but something similar to the robot mail carts you mention. It shows up when the young protagonist is being held on a secret military base, and is given a brief explanation ("this is how we deliver food here on the base"), but is not really treated as a big deal. I remember thinking that the robot was really period.

sunbeam said...

pat (Albertosaurus),

I'm not going to reproduce your post, but that is pretty much what I see now, and think will happen in the future.

I don't know your thinking on a lot of things, but I wholeheartedly agree with you on this issue.

Heartiste, I don't know what to say. I really have very little interest in the things you put on your blog. Maybe a younger me would have cared, but this one thinks a 12 inch wallet beats a 12 inch penis, every time.

Still, I think at this point it's not possible to dismiss the point you made in your blog entry.

I got kind of curious a few years ago when I saw some references to the unusual sex lives of young Japanese men.

I seem to remember that some of them couldn't orgasm with real women, because the "feeling" was inferior to their masturbation machines.

Those things are pretty hilarious if you google some up. I spit coffee at the screen when I saw one.

Thing is though, at this point in my life I just don't care. It doesn't bother me, appall me, or even really interest me.

Same with homosexuality, Alpha/Beta Male crap, you name it.

Things are, things will be. Most of them are only of moderate interest if you think about things.

Whiskey said...

Pat, Detroit started dying in 1943. When Blacks rioted against Whites, and the National Guard had to be called in by FDR. The drip-drip-drip of Black on White crime, coupled with periodic anti-White ethnic cleansing riots such as 1967 made Whites flee the city. Detroit turned majority Black by 1973, meanwhile the Big Three were out in the suburbs already fleeing the ever-Blackening of Detroit as massive migration from the South attracted by Northern Welfare and the ability to seize control of a major city drew Black migrants in.

I will note that automation and robots did not start until the mid 1980's in the US auto industry by which time Detroit was already RoboCop territory. Detroit's Big Three were unchallenged really until the early 1970's by which time Detroit had already tipped majority Black. It was not lack of employment but a political/cultural revolution among Black people -- seize White cities and demand "reparations" through Welfare that destroyed Detroit, Camden, Newark, Oakland, and other cities. And that had already started in the 1940's with various riots and strikes: the Motorman's in Philly in WWII, the walkout by Black navy enlisted men in Fort Washington, Oakland, Detroit. Even the machine gunning of White officers in Australia 1943 by an all-Black Army construction crew, followed by a one-day firefight with the Australian Army, can be seen as a harbinger of things to come.

Whiskey said...

I'd like to add, print will last a lot longer than people think. Newspapers are very handy, when you are not connected to the internet, and need to know something: when is the game on, what channel, what is the weather going to be like, what did the market do yesterday, where's the latest amusing sports column, what's on TV tonight, what happened around the globe, nation, state, and neighborhood yesterday.

All this in a convenient package you can take anywhere, throw away if you want. Clip and save. No, it won't be what it was. But its still useful. People still buy manual drive cars, fountain pens, vinyl records, VCRs, turntables, and push lawnmowers. To name some "obsolete" technology. Because they're simple, do the job, and do it better than more complex, costly, and inefficient newer technology.

David said...

'80-era robot mail carts still make the rounds at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Or did in 2009.

JeremiahJohnbalaya said...

Kenny Powers has a pretty "dope" robot.

Anonymous said...

We still don't really have robotics, we have automation. Automated assembly has done wonders. Those "robotic cells" that can manufacture just about anything might actually appear within a few years. Of course, human labour seems to be cheap and getting cheaper...

Here's an interesting theory not related to automation or immigration on the decline of manufacturing in the US and elsewhere:

"High unemployment? Blame high home ownership, study says", Reuters, Nov. 1, 2013.

"... Using data going back to 1950 across all U.S. states except Alaska and Hawaii,... finds that the lag from ownership levels to unemployment rates can take up to five years to show up.

But he said the linkage, established using data on millions of randomly sampled Americans, was extraordinarily robust.

Doubling home ownership in a state can lead to more than a doubling of the jobless rate. ....

Home ownership unwittingly impairs the labor market by deterring people from moving in search of work..."

Germany and Switzerland don't have high rates of home ownership.