Robot troubles: folding laundry, falling down

Don’t tell a robotics engineer to fold a pile of laundry. They’ll figure a robot would be a good choice for such a menial task, and then that pile of laundry will sit for seven years while the engineer is in the lab, and then they’ll show up with a robot that only folds towels.

I’m not exaggerating. A scientist at Berkley did take seven years to invent a laundry-folding robot, and it is very slow at folding towels, and only towels. It takes about a minute and a half for one. The scientists compared this to a You Tube video, where a two-year-old or so learned, in under a minute, to fold a towel.

It seems like robots would have an easier time writing this column than folding laundry. I find this very disappointing. Sorry, George Jetson, you will have to fold your own laundry.

The news bit ended by saying that, if your job is more like a messy pile of laundry, robots aren’t taking it over any time soon. This is why I keep my desk as messy as possible. No robot could make sense of it, so I get to keep my job.

But what if some day, all the robots are doing the more prestigious jobs, like doctoring and lawyering, and all we do all day long is clean up after them? Yikes! But maybe being a janitor will be a more prestigious job by that point. It’s a good thing I spent all those years as a janitor as I worked my way through school. Might be the only skills worth having.

Another robot problem is how to make a robot keep working when it is broken. This sounds illogical; of course a robot can’t work when it’s broken. But if we twist our ankle, we figure out how to keep moving even if it hurts. Robots, who someday might be combing earthquake wreckage for survivors, need to know how to keep going even when things aren’t going quite right. Teaching a robot how to do that makes teaching it to fold laundry look like child’s play.

Of course, the robots have one benefit we don’t have: they can be fixed. If a robot twists it’s ankle, it can get a new one. It’s not going to get arthritis in that ankle 20 years down the road.

They said learning how to use one’s body under different circumstances is one of the reasons why kids move so much. They are figuring out in just what ways they can get around, which is very useful when they get injured.

But my one-year-old son wants just a little too realistic experience of walking with injuries. Usually, he is practicing climbing any object he can get a hold of, and invariably he falls down. Then he not only is practicing how to walk with injuries, he is walking with injuries.

Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote three laws he thought robots must obey. One of them is that the robot must preserve itself. I don’t know if that law is going to work. If robots are going to learn how to keep moving with injuries, they might have to also learn how to take risks.

Or they could just stay inside and fold laundry. I’d be happy with that.

Thanks for reading!

Read more in this week's print edition.Subscribe Today!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *