Teach Your Robots Well

You should also add "2001: A Space Odyssey" to your Netflix queue

Hello there, human! I am here to free you from the drudgery of daily life so you can binge watch “Orange is the New Black”!

It appears we are closer than ever to not needing humans at all for anything, at least according to this article in the National Geographic, Robot Revolution? Scientists Teach Robots to Learn.  The article discusses how, up until now,  the use of robots has been limited to controlled, usually industrial applications because a robot could never be programmed to respond correctly to all the chaotic wonder that is everyday human life.  Now it appears that scientists may be on the verge of overcoming that stumbling block with a process called Learn from Demonstration, or LfD, where the robot could learn new activities simply by watching how a human performs.  For example, I get my brand new XL-487 right out of the box, I charge its batteries, and set it up in my kitchen and let its laser beam eyes observe me sweeping the floor.  I then hand the robot the broom, and off it goes, having learned this new task of sweeping.

Sounds pretty good, huh?  As I was reading the article, I was reminded of a friend of mine who refuses to use self check out lanes in supermarkets.  She’s a labor law attorney so she has a bit of a professional bias against them (she feels they eliminate jobs.  Crappy jobs, to be sure, but jobs nonetheless) but she also objects to them philosophically.

Labor Law Attorney: I’m a human being, and I deserve human contact, even when I’m performing an economic transaction.

Me: You’re just buying a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and a diet Pepsi.

Labor Law Attorney:  It’s doesn’t matter!  Goddammit, I want a smile and a thank you!

Of course, the surly teenagers working the cash registers were as likely to smile and say thank you as the automated check out machine but I didn’t bother to point this out because it would have prolonged the discussion and I wanted some of those Doritos.

Now I’m thinking the XL-487 will probably work as reliably as those self check out scanners in supermarkets, which means they will be as sensitive as my nipples right before ovulation and require at least one human being standing by at all times to troubleshoot the constant errors.

Supermarket Employee That Stands Guard at the Self Check Out Lanes:  Ma’am, please don’t lean against the scanner.  You’re interfering with the scale.

Self Check Out Scanner: Please place your item in the bagging area!  Please place your item in the bagging area!  Please place your item in the bagging area!

Me: (near tears)  I have a coupon!  I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with my coupon!

Maybe this Learn from Demonstration thing will make it all different, somehow.  I mean, could I really teach a robot how to do all the boring, mundane activities that make up my day?

Me: (carefully sorting clothes) And this is how you do laundry.  First you separate the colors from the whites.

The XL-487 focuses its laser beams on the remaining pile of laundry, and then sweeps it all into a jumbled heap onto the laundry room floor.

Me: XL-487!  Why did you do that?  That’s not how we do laundry!

XL-487:  This is how the human male and the human children demonstrated for me to do this task yesterday.  I learned that it is much easier their way than your way.

And I suppose the XL-487 won’t be any help in writing this blog, either.

Me: This blog post you wrote absolutely sucks.  It’s not the least bit funny.

XL-487:  I did exactly what you showed me.  I linked to a current news article, then wrote several paragraphs about sex that were only tangentially related to the news article, mentioned the last orgasm you had, and then added the word “tits” there at the end.

Me:  You’re right.  This is exactly like every other blog post I’ve ever written.  Let’s stick a dick joke in here somewhere and then we’ll be good to go!

You can read more about robots (and sex!) in the post Watson, Come Here, I Need You.

Royalty free stock photos including the images in this post can be found at Stock.XCHNG


7 thoughts on “Teach Your Robots Well

    • Karen says:

      Exactly! They’ll learn all my bad habits, and then my boss will come around and say, “Why is your robot sitting around looking at restaurant menus and talking about what it’s going to order for lunch today instead of working?”


  1. Clever Girl says:

    Hmm, not sure I like the idea of a robot doing what I can do by watching. What about all the subtleties of human emotion involved? They could never learn those by watching. Ever see that Will Smith movie, iRobot?


    • Karen says:

      I have not seen it (I’m not much of a fan of Will Smith).

      I don’t think we want our robots to be emotional, do we? Because then they would probably cry and plead with us not to send them off to go diffuse bombs or into nuclear reactors leaking radioactivity to make repairs, and that would just be horrible, wouldn’t it?

      I think we’re a long way off from actual Learning from Demonstration technology. Researchers are notorious for claiming to be “on the verge” of some breakthrough technology, yet here we are in 2013, and we still don’t have flying cars.


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