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Archive for the month “January, 2013”

Before your professor contacted you on Facebook

I recently saw an item on Facebook that caught my eye.

Here is a link to the new revised edition of the Zach Hunter book you asked about before class today.

This was a message from a college professor to one of his students. I happen to know both the professor and the student, by the way.

As I looked at the message, I thought about how things had changed since I was a student.

If Professor Ray Kierstead or Professor Arthur Leigh wanted to send me a message, they’d probably have to see me in class or encourage me to set up an appointment with them during office hours. Professor Kierstead or Professor Leigh wouldn’t just show up at my dorm room.

The professors obviously couldn’t send me a Facebook message like today’s professors can; Facebook wouldn’t even be established for another quarter century.

The professors couldn’t email me. Email was in its infancy, and even if the professors happened to have accounts on the DEC PDP/11-70 UNIX computer, I’d have to go all the way to the computer room to read them. It wasn’t like I had a computer terminal in my room or anything like that.

The professors couldn’t even phone me. Well, I guess they could; there was a pay phone in each of the dorms, and I think that they accepted incoming calls. (Younger readers, someday I’ll tell you what a “pay phone” was.)

So today, via Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or similar services, it is easy for professors to keep in touch with students and vice versa. Obviously there are drawbacks to this; if the professor happened to be vegan, and if the student happened to post something about a late night visit to In N Out, this could cause some issues. (However, I know that this particular professor likes turkey, so there’s no vegan issue here.)

I happened to think that this increased inter-communication is a good thing. But then again, I’m not a student today.

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The robots do not mean to hurt you

I was looking for updated information on Narrative Science, the company that I wrote about last year. I couldn’t find anything new – other than the fact that Forbes still publishes Narrative Science-authored articles – but I did find some interesting observations.

First, if you’re worried about your job being taken away by technology, it’s already happened once before.

It’s hard to believe you’d have an economy at all if you gave pink slips to more than half the labor force. But that—in slow motion—is what the industrial revolution did to the workforce of the early 19th century. Two hundred years ago, 70 percent of American workers lived on the farm. Today automation has eliminated all but 1 percent of their jobs, replacing them (and their work animals) with machines. But the displaced workers did not sit idle. Instead, automation created hundreds of millions of jobs in entirely new fields.

In a similar fashion, any jobs that are lost over the next few decades will be replaced by new ones.

Second, there’s a chance that you may be working WITH the robots. That in itself requires a major advance.

[The industrial robot Baxter] can look around and indicate where it is looking by shifting the cartoon eyes on its head. It can perceive humans working near it and avoid injuring them. And workers can see whether it sees them. Previous industrial robots couldn’t do this, which means that working robots have to be physically segregated from humans. The typical factory robot is imprisoned within a chain-link fence or caged in a glass case. They are simply too dangerous to be around, because they are oblivious to others. This isolation prevents such robots from working in a small shop, where isolation is not practical. Optimally, workers should be able to get materials to and from the robot or to tweak its controls by hand throughout the workday; isolation makes that difficult. Baxter, however, is aware. Using force-feedback technology to feel if it is colliding with a person or another bot, it is courteous. You can plug it into a wall socket in your garage and easily work right next to it.

I’ve never seen the TV show Lost in Space, and I didn’t realize that when the Robot said “Danger, Will Robinson,” the danger came from the robot itself…

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