FutureStructure

San Diego Strives to Become Robotics Research Hub

Henrik Christensen, who was hired in July to run UC San Diego’s young Contextual Robotics Institute, talks about the effect autonomous cars may have on our society.

by Janine Fastenau / December 19, 2016
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) -- Thirty of the world’s top scientists will meet at UC San Diego in February to discuss the toughest challenges in robotics and automation, including making driverless cars safe for a mass audience.

The researchers are being brought together by Henrik Christensen, the prominent Georgia Tech engineer who was hired in July to run UC San Diego’s young Contextual Robotics Institute.

Christensen said at the time, “I want to build a research institute that, ideally, will be in the top five in the world five years from now. Why not see if we can make San Diego ‘Robot Valley’. “

The February forum is a step toward raising the university’s visibility in robotics, a field defined by grand advances and embarrassing setbacks. Christensen sat down with the Union-Tribune this week to talk about what’s likely to happen in the near-term.

The interview was edited for space, clarity and continuity.

Q: Automation and robotics are advancing quickly. What impact will this have on employment in the US?

A: We see two trends. We will use robots and automation to bring manufacturing jobs back from overseas, primarily from southeastern Asia. At the same time, we will see some jobs get displaced by automation. There will be fully automated, driverless transportation in this country by 2020, and that will eliminate some jobs now held by workers like truck drivers and taxi drivers.

Q: Will there be a net increase or decrease in jobs?

A: To be honest with you, we don’t know.

There was a recent study on this by the National Academies but there wasn’t enough good data to make it clear what the outcome will be.

We do see a lot of change occurring. Amazon is printing books at their local distribution centers, then sending them on to customers. They print the book, put a cover on it, and off it goes. That cuts down on transportation jobs and costs.

Q: Are you saying that Amazon is just beginning to do this?

A: It’s happening today. This program has been in existence for more than a year. The last estimate I heard was that 65-percent of the books they deliver are printed in their local distribution centers. Amazon wants to do deliveries of groceries, too.

Q: But doesn't this assume that the technology of driverless vehicles is much further along than it actually is?

A: My own prediction is that kids born today will never get to drive a car. Autonomous, driverless cars are 10, 15 years out. All the automotive companies -- Daimler, GM, Ford -- are saying that within five years they will have autonomous, driverless cars on the road.

Q: We’re both baby boomers. We’ve driven all of our lives. How do you feel about kids never having this experience?

A: I love to drive my car. But it’s a question of how much time people waste sitting in traffic and not doing something else. The average person in San Diego probably spends an hour commuting every day. If they could become (more) productive, that would be good.

With autonomous, driverless cars, we can put twice as many vehicles on the road as we have today, and do it without improving the infrastructure.

Q: Does that mean San Diego will need fewer parking garages?

A: There'd be no need to have parking garages in downtown San Diego. In theory, you'd get out of the car and say ‘Pick me up at 4 p.m.’ Long-term -- we're talking 20 years into the future -- you're not even going to own a car. A car becomes a service.

Q: Who is going to orchestrate all of this movement to make sure Interstate 5 isn't some black hole of traffic at 5 p.m. every day?

A: We have to think of this in terms of how can we realize mass transportation. I would like to have trucks that don't drive during rush hour. I'd like McDonalds and others to make deliveries outside of rush hour.

Q: Do you have one central agency orchestrating the movement of these vehicles?

A: My expectation is that the city of San Diego would have taxes based on when you use the transportation system. So if you want to make deliveries at 8 a.m., when everyone else is on the road, it would be more expensive to use the freeway.

We will see significant displacement of taxi drivers, truck drivers, all of these transportation functions. So the question is: What will they do? The unskilled laborers are the ones that are in danger. They have jobs that can easily get done by robots.

The questionis, “Can we retrain those people fast enough for the new jobs that will be created in areas like manufacturing?”

Q: Do you doubt whether we can do this? In the US, we currently have about 6 million unfilled jobs. Many of those jobs could be filled if people had the right skills. In many cases, people have the opportunity to get those skills but don't go ahead and do it. So---

A: California is in a relatively good position on this. But I used to live in Georgia, where 34-percent of the population never finishes high school. They're not going to be able to get retrained to do these new jobs. That's why it's very important that we make sure that people's education is high enough that they can get retrained later.

Q: Elon Musk, the president of SpaceX and Tesla, said that it may be necessary in the US to have a universal basic income. The government pays a certain amount of money to unemployed workers ---

A: I think what they're saying is that whether you have a job or you don't have a job, you have a minimum basic income that's a guaranteed for life. We are starting to see trends like this. In Sweden, they recently reduced the number of work hours per week from 40 to 30, and they still have seven weeks of vacation every year. That is going towards a socialistic model where you guarantee a basic level of income.

I think that in the US that would be a really hard thing (to get passed.) It would lead to significantly higher taxes, it would require a departure from the current political system.

Q: Do you see downsides to the evolution of robots? Last year, Google was awarded a patent that involves customizing the personality of robots. There seems to be some be some disturbing privacy issues there. Or am I reading too much into it?

A: I think we're going to see robots that are going to learn from you. They’re going to use potentially all of the data that's available about you.

We would like to build a robot that would let (an elderly person) to stay in their house another five years. The cost of going to a managed care facility is somewhere around $80,000 a year. If you could stay in your home, the cost would only be about $20,000.

We would want to know, when we build the robot, what is your personality? When do you get up in the morning? When do you go to bed? Are you a tennis person? A TV person? I think people would want the robot to be highly customized to them.

The real question is, “Who else has access to that data?” Is it going to be companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple? Are we confident that they are not going to abuse that information to try to sell you information, or sell it to somebody else?

Q: You said we have to show that the robots can't be hacked. But we haven't shown that ability in current society. Everybody, everything, is getting hacked. Isn’t that a problem?

A: I think we have been very ignorant about privacy. But we're getting to a point right where we are starting to pay attention.

Q: Was 2016 a tipping point year in hacking? Web sites were knocked offline. The Democratic National Committee was hacked. Everywhere we turn we hear a hacking story. Has it really begun to sink in for the general public?

A: I don't think we're there yet. I think all of intellectuals are worried about it. But if you go and talk to every day people it’s not such a big deal. Unfortunately, I think things have to get a lot worse before they get better.

Q: So what has to happen for people to say, hey, stop this hacking?

A: It has to impact you, or a larger number of people, who say, ‘Uh-oh, they’ve gotten into my bank account.” Or a big portion of the grid goes down and the east coast is suddenly without electricity for a couple of days. People will go, ‘Wow, now this has hit me.”

When the hack hits your personal life, people will say we need to stop it. But it’s not going to be an easy thing to fix.

©2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.