January 18, 2016

Robots for the poor?

I'm restless. I have skills and I want to use them. I build robots. A handy skill to have these days. But when I look out over the landscape of potential work I can take on, I find myself feeling unsatisfied. Robots are advancing at an incredible pace and we can finally use them to solve some of the world's major problems. But Silicon Valley investors don't fund things with the most impact, they fund things with the most profit potential. There is a serious misalignment between profit and impact, and it's causing us to miss real opportunities to improve the human condition.

Today is an exciting time to be a roboticist. For a long time, robots were relegated to factory floors. Bolted down in one spot, they would repeat one dull task a million times. Welding on car fenders, gluing in windshields, or painting doors.

In the last ten years, however, advances in computing, battery technology, sensing, and software have made it possible to build robots that can understand the environment around them. We've always been able to build a platform with wheels, but now we can actually program it to drive around and do something useful. So we're beginning to see self driving cars to move us around, drones to monitor crops, and toy robot kits that teach any kid with an iPad how to program.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of these things. Now I go to any consumer electronics store and they have an entire aisle devoted just to flying robots. And there are jobs available to me to work on the next generation flying robots with better cameras, longer battery life, and built in games and apps.

Or there's companies devoted to logistics. Amazon already offers one hour deliveries in San Francisco, currently powered by droves of human drivers working as contractors to make a few extra bucks in their week. Google, too, does same-day delivery with human drivers. Bay Area companies have picked up on the growing need for efficiency improvements in these delivery services, and a quick check of the robotics job boards shows a few positions available at companies looking to capitalize on that need.

There's a company building a car-sized drone to ferry us from one place to another without any traffic or stoplights.

Then there's military contractors with fat budgets looking to optimize the next kill in the name of freedom. For some of us, anyway.

I look at all these options and I think to myself: is this all there is? The robotics jobs available today broadly fit into a few different categories:

The common theme is, robots are for the wealthy.

I find that unsatisfying. Do I really want to spend my life devoting myself to making sure the most comfortable people in the world can be even more comfortable?

No, absolutely not. I've been laser focused on a career in robotics since I was 11 years old. I've worked my entire adult life to learn all the skills I need to build robots. I'm proficient in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and software engineering. I can observe any problem and devise a robot that would solve it. Then I can go build it. I do this out of habit with every problem I see. My friends will attest that I constantly say "that sounds like a problem for a robot!"

I have an intimate knowledge of mechanical systems and how we can use software and electronics to control them to do useful work. Because of this, I've come to believe that every task necessary to support human life can be done by robots. Robots can solve a lot of problems.

But when I think of a list of the most important problems I want to solve, absolutely none of them involve entertaining a small group of the wealthiest people on the planet. Certainly far less than 1% of the population of the earth can afford a $1000 drone, and I don't consider the marginal increase in happiness toy drones create to be solving a major world problem.

What about the other 7 billion people on the earth who have basic needs that can be solved by robots? Who is working on solutions for them?

Surely, some people will say that advancing drone technology does help the world's poorest. That toy drone with the 4K camera may not ever help poor children directly, but wealthy people support the growth of the drone market and the advancement in engineering skills that comes with more companies working on those systems. Other drone companies do a lot of work in the agricultural space, and better agricultural drones will contribute to better food for the poorest in the world.

At least, that's the story I'm sure many could come up with. But I'm not sure I buy it. Do you really think people who don't even have running water need a drone that will optimize their crop output? Sure, it might be good to have, but if it costs more than an entire village makes in a decade that's not gonna happen.

The truth is, the global poor simply have different problems than the wealthy, and this sort of "trickle down engineering" isn't going to do a lot to solve their problems.

But there are SO MANY MORE poor people in the world than there are wealthy people. And their problems are much more serious. I'd feel way more satisfied in my job if I helped one poor person eat than if I helped one rich person take a drone selfie.

If I take a look at the jobs boards for Silicon Valley though, there aren't any robotics companies working on solutions for the global poor.

That seems strange, since creating solutions that help poor people would have way more impact than making perfectly comfortable people even more comfortable.

If robotics has the potential to make such a huge impact on some people's lives, why aren't more people working directly on that problem?

Then I remember: poor people don't have a lot of money. We operate within a capitalist system, and in a capitalist system only people who can provide you money have any value. Sure, capitalists have a lot of feelings about starving children in poor countries, but when it comes time to do real hard work to solve people's problems, we come up with better ways to take drone selfies. Because there is no monetary gain to be had from solving the problems of poor people, we completely ignore them.

That is beyond fucked up.

I've talked to people about this. The answers range from "that's just the way things are" to "well, start a company, get rich, then use that money to fund your own operations."

Eh... sure. Maybe. Starting a company and getting rich isn't easy. I know, because I've tried. It takes a LOT of effort and I don't want to work on solving these problems indirectly. And I refuse to accept that things have to be this way. As an engineer, my job is to solve problems. And the fact that we can't arrange our labor in a sane way is a problem. And let me be clear: the fact that I want to build robotics for the poor and that I can't just go get a job to do it is a problem. I honestly don't give a shit about making more toys for rich people. There are real problems in the world and I'm pissed off that it's so hard to work on them.

I'm not sure what the solution is, but I'm reading a lot and talking with people with the hope that we can figure something out. Is the solution a basic income, communism, or anarchism? Whatever it is, how do we get there from where we are?