Tim Harford: What We Get Wrong About Technology

Blade Runner (1982) is a magnificent film, but there’s something odd about it. The heroine, Rachael, seems to be a beautiful young woman. In reality, she’s a piece of technology — an organic robot designed by the Tyrell Corporation. She has a lifelike mind, imbued with memories extracted from a human being.  So sophisticated is Rachael that she is impossible to distinguish from a human without specialised equipment; she even believes herself to be human. Los Angeles police detective Rick Deckard knows otherwise; in Rachael, Deckard is faced with an artificial intelligence so beguiling, he finds himself falling in love. Yet when he wants to invite Rachael out for a drink, what does he do?

He calls her up from a payphone…


Notes from Hacker News:

Jennifer and the many other programmes like her are examples of a “voice-directed application” — just software and a simple, inexpensive earpiece. Such systems have become part of life for warehouse workers: a voice in their ear or instructions on a screen tell them where to go and what to do, down to the fine details. If 13 items must be collected from a shelf, Jennifer will tell the human worker to pick five, then five, then three. “Pick 13” would lead to mistakes. That makes sense. Computers are good at counting and scheduling. Humans are good at picking things off shelves. Why not unbundle the task and give the conscious thinking to the computer, and the mindless grabbing to the human?

I remember reading in Scientific American a few years back, about a study that was very striking and against common intuition. In manufacturing, robots had overtaken humans at a particular task by a long shot. They were able to perform the completion of assemblies much quicker and with higher accuracy; humans coming in afterwards and applying finishes that required small hands, light touches, or hard to explain measurements.

Robots > Humans. Humans finished what robots couldn’t.

What wasn’t foreseen, however, was that there was an additional step to shave off even more time. Given some artificial intelligence, the robots could actually tell the humans when, and how, to do assembly during and as part of the assembly process. The robot figuring out the most efficient assembly, and instructing the human to do what it couldn’t, was a third step of assembly efficiency not foreseen.

It turned out:

Robots + Humans > Robots > Humans.

I think that was a thread in I, Robot.My favorite is how the robots on the space colony don’t believe the humans could have created them, due to how sophisticated they are.

I believe this is the story with Cutie (nickname for QT-1) who invents a religion to justify its existence. The amusing thing was that the rituals of its religion consisted of making sure the space colony functioned properly, so the humans decided to leave the robot’s faith alone. And the robot thought that the humans were mindless religious fools for believing in Earth:

“””The robot approached softly and there was sorrow in his voice. “You are going?”

Powell nodded curtly. “There will be others in our place.”

Cutie sighed, with the sound of wind humming through closely spaced wires. “Your term of service is over and the time of dissolution has come. I expected it, but — well, the Master’s will be done!”

His tone of resignation stung Powell. “Save the sympathy, Cube. We’re heading for Earth, not dissolution.”

“It is best that you think so,” Cutie sighed again. “I see the wisdom of the illusion now. I would not attempt to shake your faith, even if I could.” He departed — the picture of commiseration.”””

–“Reason” by Isaac Asimov

Exactly that one. One of my favorite shorts in that collection. I loved how one of the humans was annoyed and felt that they should correct the robot. (Assuming my memory isn’t making that detail up…)

If you enjoyed this article, Tim Harford (the author) also has a podcast series called 50 Things That Made The Modern Economy[0] which expands on pretty much every one of the inventions mentioned in the post. The episodes are roughly 10 minutes long, well produced, and always cite the source material. Worth listening to.[0] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04b1g3c/episodes/downloads