Self-Driving Cars Could Save Millions Of Lives — But There’s A Catch – Huffington Post

Posted: Friday, February 19, 2016

Will the rise of intelligent machines transform our lives for the better — or push us into the abyss? It depends on whom you ask.

Some people say self-driving vehicles, personal robots and the like will usher in a new era of convenience and leisure while freeing workers from dull and often dangerous jobs. Others worry that the emergent robotic workforce will mean economic devastation for workers, who, after all, depend on those jobs to support their families.

And then there is the fear — expressed by the likes of Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking — that as intelligent machines grow ever smarter and more capable, they may threaten our very existence.

Dr. Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist who has studied automation and artificial intelligence (AI) for more than 30 years, has his own nuanced view. As to whether intelligent machines are beneficial or detrimental, the Rice University professor says simply, “I view them as both.”

Intelligent machines will bring convenience and safety as well as higher productivity, he continues, but they will also throw millions of Americans out of work. 

Vardi spoke about smart machines last week in Washington, D.C., at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Huffington Post caught up with him afterward to pose some pointed questions.

Industrial robots have been around for decades. Why are they and other autonomous systems suddenly such a hot topic?

We seem to have reached a tipping point with industrial robots, as their cost has continued to come down and their capabilities have continued to go up. Take a look at U.S. manufacturing. We have reached an all-time high in output, but employment is below its 1950’s level.

The myth is that all the jobs are going to China. Actually it’s mostly because of factory automation. There are already about 260,000 robots at work in U.S. factories, and the annual growth is in the double digits.

Which technological advances in particular have been most important in the development of machines that can replace humans for many tasks?

For industrial robots, we have seen significant improvements in terms of both mechanical engineering and control engineering. These robots are smarter, more agile and cheaper!

For example, the Baxter robot is a two-armed robot for simple industrial tasks such as loading, unloading, sorting and handling of materials, which it can learn by watching a human do these tasks. It is sold for $25,000, which makes it suitable for small and medium-sized companies.

Suddenly we have new low entry point for companies. You don’t have to be a Ford or a General Motors to buy factory robots.

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