At the peak of ingenuity, the human race is apprehensive with the sense of sinister in robots. A group is predicting that robots will jeopardize jobs across the globe. Consequently, there will be a few super-rich, and the rest will be in mass poverty, leading to social chaos and political instability. In contrary to it, optimists are waiting for heaven to decent on the earth. In the world of robots, the tedious problems of human relationships will be overcome by having a perfect life with easily replaceable humanoid partners. Robots, as opposed to humans, will fulfill our basic needs as well as our deepest longings. Consequentially, “work” along with scarcity will become an ancient concept—opening an endless frontier of happiness. In this world, the humanoid will be all the time busy to serve our purpose. However, will lack of innate abilities stall humanoids to meet our dream?
In the perfect world of robotics, the humanoid will not age, get sick, and also get exhausted to keep serving us 24 hours a day. On the other hand, doom predictions anticipate that robots will be smart enough to take over the human race. Extreme high contrast between these two futures has made most of us bewildered. It often raises questions about the future of work. Such reality demands us to look into further details to draw some insights to make us pragmatists as opposed to be either extreme pessimists or optimists.
Lack of innate abilities stall humanoids to keep progressing
In 1929, the New York Times termed a humanoid Eric perfect gentleman. Despite making a sensation, it disappeared. It neither made a lady happy nor did it perform any meaningful task. Its British inventor could not also become rich by producing and selling clones of Eric, either. Similarly, many other humanoids disappeared upon creating sensational news. Some of them are now in the world’s famous museum to entertain us, mostly to curious individuals. One of them is the Japanese tea serving doll.
After almost 100 years of Eric’s emergence as a perfect gentleman, we still show interest and apprehensiveness about humanoids. One of them, upon meeting and greeting many dignitaries, also received the citizenship of a country. Among all of the humanoids created so far since 1495, Honda’s ASIMO is the most advanced. A dedicated R&D team of Honda worked on it for over 30 years. Among demonstrating many capabilities, it also played a shocker with former president Barak Obama.
Honda’s decision to stop R&D for ASIMO rings the alarm bell
Unfortunately, to our surprise, it is also on the path of disappearance. In 2018, Honda stopped the R&D program to make ASIMO more capable of qualifying to be the preferred option to deliver services. Mainly, Honda was interested in tapping into the growing elderly care nursing service market. But unfortunately, long R&D did not lead to developing human-like innate capabilities in ASIMO. Moreover, Honda also estimated that it might not be feasible, perhaps not possible, to develop such capabilities in ASIMO. In fact, such a reality about the need of humans, like innate capabilities and the degree of complexity of building them, compels us to rethink the future of robotics in the service industry.
We should pay attention to the risk that a lack of innate abilities may stall humanoid to invade the service market deeper. Consequentially, it may slow down creative destruction waves resulting in far less effect on the future of work.
Innate abilities pose threat to stall humanoid
In order to perform a task, we need certain capabilities. Human beings earn them three different means: i. by born, ii. education and training and iii. experience. Through education and training, we develop codified capability comprising of knowledge and skill. Through experience, we also gather capacity, often in tacit form. By born, we are blessed with a set of task execution capabilities. They are known as innate abilities. On the other hand, machines are developed with inanimate materials. They are devoid of any knowledge or skill. We design and develop task execution capability in machines. For this, we invent and advance technologies, generate ideas for adding and enhancing the features of machines. To get a task done, we compare humans and machines. Based on comparative advantage, we decide whom to deploy to execute the required task in a specific situation.
The complexity of building human-like innate abilities is daunting
It has been found that it’s quite far easier to build machine capabilities to automate the execution of codified capability. On the other hand, it’s often far more complex, perhaps impossible with the current state of technology, to build human-like innate abilities in machines. For this reason, most of the machines, perhaps all, do not have human-like innate abilities. However, unlike industrial jobs, most service jobs like nursing require a rich set of human-like innate abilities. In fact, as Honda’s R&D team failed to develop such abilities, ASIMO could not succeed in creating its demand in the service delivery market. With the given learning, it appears that the complexity of developing human-like innate abilities is going to impede, perhaps stall in certain market segments, the diffusion of robots in the service market.
Studies indicate that human beings have 52 innate abilities, in four categories. In executing most of the tasks, human beings deploy many of them simultaneously. Moreover, they deploy them subconsciously. It’s interesting to observe that such innate abilities for which humans did not invest to acquire are the most challenging part of building robots.
To start the execution of tasks, and also during the execution, human beings use the cognitive capability for the acquisition and application of knowledge. Twenty-one identifiable innate abilities belong to this category. Some of them are i. category flexibility, ii. selective attention, iii. Spatial orientation and iv. fluency of ideas. Unlike the factory environment, service delivery requires applying these innate abilities in varying situations. Moreover, they need to apply multiple of them simultaneously. For example, routine nursing tasks such as “turn or reposition bedridden patients” require at least 15 innate abilities, starting from speech recognition to arm-hand steadiness. On the other hand, the relative importance of innate abilities varies over the occupation. For example, the level of importance of selective attention in air traffic controllers is the highest, 88 percent.
It’s being claimed that significant waves of innovation driving the fourth industrial revolution will mostly be powered by the cognitive abilities of physical systems. We call them cyber-physical systems. However, the given hard experience of Honda’s team in building such capabilities in ASIMO indicates that the progress will be very slow. Subsequently, such slow progress may lead to the abandonment of many projects.
Innate abilities also belong to the physical attributes of humans. Although human beings are quite weaker than many robots, certain innate physical abilities are quite vital for service delivery. However, often they are subtle and also intuitive. One of them is dynamic flexibility, which refers to the “ability to quickly and repeatedly bend, stretch, twist, or reach out with your body, arms, and/or legs.” The ability to coordinate the movement of arms, legs, and torso together when the whole body is in motion is another essential innate ability. Human beings have nine such physical innate abilities.
In the category Psychomotor, human beings have distinctly identifiable nine innate abilities. They belong to the capacity to manipulate and control objects. Human beings have 10 of these abilities. One of them is finger dexterity. It’s about “the ability to make precisely coordinated movements of the fingers of one or both hands to grasp, manipulate, or assemble very small objects.” It’s often argued that the complexity of building similar abilities into robot hands will stall robotic innovation in many service areas. In fact, the robot’s finger made with state-of-the-art of technology looks very primitive once it’s compared with humans’ ones.
Despite the recent progress of sensor technology, robots still suffer from imitating human-like sensory innate abilities. In this category, human beings have twelve innate abilities. They influence visual, auditory, and speech perception. The high-resolution camera alone does not make robots acquire visual perception capability. The complexity of computation algorithms for imitating certain abilities like a near and far vision in varying conditions is quite complex, perhaps impossible with the given state of technology.
The attempt to imitate many of these 52 innate abilities to robots faces high challenges, perhaps not impossible in the long run. Moreover, even a single service task requires many of them to go into execution seamlessly. Consequentially, it may take decades-long R&D to imitate just one ability to support a limited number of tasks. Even after overcoming technology barriers, innovators might not succeed in creating enough willingness to pay among target customers to generate profitable revenue. In this context, the lesson from Honda’s ASIMO is worth considering. Despite high hope and hype, why did ASIMO fail to create a megatrend of transformation, subsequently causing disruption, is worth looking into.
Such challenges will certainly impede the progression of robots in taking over human jobs, particularly in the service sector. It also runs the risk of stalling the progress of robots in many applications. Over the next two decades, robots will not have human-like a rich set of innate abilities, even if they might look like humans. Consequently, the wave of creative destruction due to robotics will not be as fast-moving as we often are apprehensive of.