Is automation forcing divergent paths of quality vs. cost?

robots-too-humanI saw an interesting post: When Robot Writers Take Over, Will Freelancers Be Obsolete? The article was focused on freelance writing, but it did make me wonder about the whole concept of freelancing, in general.

The relatively fixed and easy to automate positions in many fields are ripe for automation. Those that require creativity or unique insight should be safe for a long time to come. In fact, automation could make the freelancers life less mundane and more interesting. It reminded me of a situation earlier in my career…

Back in the early 90s, I worked in the AI space for Electronic Data Systems (EDS). We focused primarily on solving problems for GM and the US government. Somewhere around here I have a coffee cup with the moto of the group: “Make it Work, Make it Real”. Unfortunately, the folks working in the group had felt it really meant that if we could make it work, it wasn’t really AI — since someone would always say that it was just regular old programming, no matter what innovative technique or esoteric language we used.

One of the projects I led was called Knowledge-based Tool Design. We were trying to automate tooling design for clamping and welding car parts using CAD techniques, a project far ahead of its time. Programmatically determining the right type of clamp and the correct way to swing it into place was too difficult spatially, for the time. We just didn’t have the compute power and the algorithms determine orientation and approach. A good human tool designer could see the solution intuitively.

We did figure out that people are not good at pulling together the bill-of-materials to ensure that the clamp and all the hydraulic and mounting components… were defined. We shifted our attention to defining that type of detail using computers — reducing the errors and rework later in the process.

Similarly, in other industries, there are so many annoying and resource intensive, low hanging fruit to be picked that the return on investment for tackling truly intuitive problems just isn’t there. That can all change though as better algorithms and computing capabilities develop.

There are a couple of ways this could go:

  • The intuitive functions will likely become more of a freelance function, since companies will not need (or be willing to pay) for those expert roles all the time and the work will be interesting.
  • The focus shifts to less high-quality designs that can be automated.

In any case, employment as we know it will be changing.

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3D printed housing becoming real

Way back in 2011-12, I wrote a few posts for HP about the application of 3D printing for housing, both on earth and in space (unfortunately, I couldn’t even find those posts on the wayback machine). This week there was a post about 3D printed housing at SXSW that demonstrated printing a livable small home in 24 hours (or a bit more) at a relatively low cost.

Hope we’ll see more of this in the future.

Last weekend was the Dallas FIRST Regional

Last weekend was the Dallas FRC regional. There are videos of the competition available on-line. This year’s competition was steampunk based.

FRC

I’ve been coordinating judging for the FIRST Robotics competition in Dallas for about 8 years now, so naturally there are a significant number of retired EDS and a few Raytheon folks involved.

FRC allows students to start from a standard kit of parts and some state of the art tools (received at the kickoff in January) to build a robot attempting to meet specified objectives. This video is an overview of this year’s challenge – FIRST Steamworks

The goal of FIRST is to encourage the understanding and passion around STEM. It has a proven track record of results that is hard to argue with. 


I was also drafted to judge the Jr. FIRST Lego League competition on Saturday morning. That competition is targeted at grade school students. At least in the Dallas area this competition was sponsored by Raytheon, among others.

Jr

Fantastic Voyage moving a little closer to reality

One of the use cases often described with MEMS is using these devices to clear up problems in the human body.

This article describes an effort headed by the Korea Evaluation Institute of Industrial Technologies (KEIT) to create ‘microswimmer’ robots to drill through blocked arteries. These swarms of microscopic, magnetic, robotic beads which look and move like corkscrew-shaped bacteria.

spiral-shaped-microswimmer

Drexel’s microswimmer robots (bottom) are modeled, in form and motion, after spiral-shaped Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria (top), which cause Lyme disease (credit: Drexel University)

Once flow is restored in the artery, the microswimmer chains could disperse and be used to deliver anti-coagulant medication directly to the affected area to prevent future blockage. This procedure could supplant the two most common methods for treating blocked arteries: stenting and angioplasty.

Video of Achiral microwimmers (credit: Drexel University)

3D Metal-printing robot builds a mid-air bridge

I’ve been interested in 3D printing for a very long time. When I came across this article on a metal-printing 3D robot that can build bridges I was intrigued about the possibilities, and the engineering issues.

In any 3D printing project, crossing an unsupported span is a bit of an issue, but having the span support the printer at the same time is really a feat, and fun to watch.