Robots, TED Talks, and Butchers’ Thumbs

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear!

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear!

Coming home from work today (yes, now I’m working Saturdays), I heard something that made me sit bolt upright while listening to a National Public Radio program dedicated to TED talks. You may recall that TED (short for Technology, Entertainment, Design) is the dernier cri when it comes to spreading dubious notions. This one was a talk by Cynthia Breazeal of MIT entitled “The Rise of Personal Robots.”

Ms. Breazeal dreamed of a day when robots would solve many of our societal and personal problems. What makes me suspicious is what I call the Butcher’s Thumb Paradox. A good electronic scale makes weighing cuts of meat easy and accurate—except for one thing. I am referring to the butcher’s thumb, which, resting on the scale, adds several ounces to your purchase.

In the world of robotics, what would serve as the butcher’s thumb are the corporations that build the robots. The robots will serve you, the purchaser, to some extent; but, even more, they serve the marketing goals of the corporations that build them. That’s why robots have been used extensively to kill manufacturing jobs, because they are cheaper than humans, don’t ever unionize, and don’t require expensive health or workmen’s compensation insurance.

Remember how many technical support problems the telephone was supposed to solve. Now, when you call a major corporation for tech support, you get what’s called an automated attendant, which walks you through a script. Now I don’t know about you, but the option you are looking for doesn’t exist about 50-60% of the time. Why? Because it is never in the corporation’s best interest to explain anything to you which may require follow-up questions and answers. They’ll connect you to sales right away, but God help you if they accidentally billed you for a left-handed sky hook or delivered a device that was, in effect, a non-functioning paper weight. In fact, many vendors will now charge you to answer questions. Questions are quite simply unprofitable. Too bad about your needs!

Before we ever get a personal robot to help us with the housework or carry out the garbage, we will have robot bill collectors, robot parking police, and robot callers. (Wait a minute! We already have those! And aren’t they fun?)

So when TED speakers promise great money and time saving advances for us plain folks, keep looking for the butcher’s thumb. It’s there somewhere….