Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
They may be coming for our jobs, but they really struggle with folding shirts.
Afraid of robot overlords rolling in to steal your job? Take solace in the fact that these gizmos get tangled up in tasks that require dexterity and on-the-spot problem solving.
As CityLab has previously reported, an Oxford study estimates that a total of 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of being mowed down by the increasingly computerized economy, squeezing the already-beleagured middle class. White-collar workers aren’t out of the woods either, reports Boston’s WGBH radio station. Silicon Valley executive Martin Ford chatted with WGBH about his new book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. The takeaway: robots could ultimately replace teachers, journalists (uh-oh), and employees in the service sector. Bloomberg Business has rhapsodized about vocational training that teaches people how to work alongside robots, instead of trying to tackle them and find an “off” switch.
In the long run, it’s probably smart to think strategically about ways we can all optimize our roles in the future economy. But for now, before the robots arrive and outsmart us all, let’s appreciate the fact that we’ve still got them beat when it comes to some tasks requiring fine motor skills, spatial awareness, and manual dexterity.
Seven years ago, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley attempted to teach their robot, BRETT—or, “Berkeley Robot for the Elimination of Tedious Tasks”—how to fold laundry, NPR reports. It wasn’t easy. The robot had a hard time parsing the jumble of dirty clothes: inside-out socks and bunched-up t-shirts aren’t easy to navigate.
Eventually, NPR continues, BRETT learned to fold a towel in 20 minutes, then a minute and a half. PC Mag notes that the team was ultimately able to teach BRETT to solve problems through trial-and-error, much like people do. (The researchers will present their findings at Seattle's International Conference on Robotics and Automation, or ICRA, on May 28.)
But the robot’s struggles with laundry—more complicated than screwing on a bottle lid, a task BRETT has mastered—tell us something interesting about what humans are capable of. We can analyze and respond to complex scenarios in real-time. Some robots, it seems, haven’t gotten there yet.
Writes NPR’s Steve Henn,
One of the ways to figure out if a robot is going to take your job is to ask yourself: What are the rules here? Is my job a series [of] decisions based on an orderly pattern? Or is my job really more like a giant pile of messy laundry?
Some day soon, you’ll have to figure out how to get along with your high-tech colleagues. For now, though, go ahead and fold laundry with a smug grin.