Thursday, June 14, 2007
In the 1980's The Economist magazine used to rail about the differing attitudes between Japanese and American automakers toward the introduction of robots to the factory floor. Both countries were changing toward robotic manufacturing at about the same rate at about the same time. American managers at GM and elsewhere took the point of view that the robots were there to replace the workers. Lee Iacocca famously bragged during a commercial that Chrysler cars were being made by robots and therefore not subject to error. (The stereotype of the Detroit autoworker of the time was of a drunkard who comes in only four days a week and pays little attention to the fine points of his job.) The Japanese attitude, by contrast, was that the robots were there to enhance, rather than replace, the workers. As The Economist said, these two very different attitudes produced markedly different results, with Japanese workers feeling empowered and trusted; and so feeling part of the production team, they worked harder and produced better cars. Fast forwarding to today's car market, as Toyota easily grows past Chrysler and then Ford, with GM soon to follow, we see how important such a difference of attitude can be. It can literally make or break a multi-billion dollar business.
Since the dawn of the computer age, going at least back to Mary Shelley, "thinking machines" have simultaneously been extolled and feared as replacements for human beings. An example from the Sixties is the classic movie Colossus: The Forbin Project. Reality is that computers are not, and can never be, such replacements.
"Computers are simply the latest version of the ball-point pen," my mother told me in high school, and decades spent in the computer industry have overwhelmingly convinced me she was spot on. Computers are machines for performing repetitive, hence boring, tasks. Our calling in this industry is to remove such boring repetitive tasks from human life. In doing so, the society becomes enriched, human beings become free to be and experience what it is to be more fully human and less machinelike. But there will always remain many jobs/tasks which can only be done by human beings. Human beings are highly optimized by millions of years of evolution toward making good decisions based on scant information. We call this "gut level feelings" and such "hunches" are usually right. Despite gargantuan efforts by the world's best computer scientists and mightiest computer companies, no computer has ever been able to even begin to approach the native ability of the human brain. In my own current field of computer vision this is made abundantly clear every single day. A person can cast a single glance at a photo and know immediately what it contains with no effort; a computer algorithm to determine what is in the picture is so difficult that, well, so difficulut that such an algorithm has never actually been created. Despite years of unending effort.
This point continues to be widely misunderstood by management, as well as by neo-luddite anti-modern activisst, and not just in the car industry nor in the United States. We should not hope to replace our workers nor should we as workers fear being replaced. Automation is the secret of ending poverty, freeing us to be what we are best at, what we were truly meant to be. Our job going forward is to automate that which is routine and to rehumanize the work of human beings.