These are two things I’ve written about lately but wanted to draw an explicit parallel between. First is Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s and Race Against the Machines, which argued that technology is progressing so quickly that it “confounds expectations and intuitions”. The part I want to address in particular is where they try and predict the jobs in which humans have the most sustainable comparative advantages. In addition to problem solving and creativity, they cite manual work:

If, as these examples indicate, both pattern recognition and complex communication are now so amenable to automation, are any human skills immune? Do people have any sustainable comparative advantage as we head ever deeper into the second half of the chessboard? In the physical domain, it seems that we do for the time being. Humanoid robots are still quite primitive, with poor fine motor skills and a habit of falling down stairs. So it doesn’t appear that gardners and restaurant busboys are in danger of being replaced by machines any time soon.

The second thing I’ve written about that I want to connect to this is DARPA’s new grand challenge. This contest is very specifically seeking to address this disadvantage that robots have compared to humans. Here are the tasks a robot will have to complete to win the challenge:

1. Drive a utility vehicle at the site.
2. Travel dismounted across rubble.
3. Remove debris blocking an entryway.
4. Open a door and enter a building.
5. Climb an industrial ladder and traverse an industrial walkway.
6. Use a power tool to break through a concrete panel.
7. Locate and close a valve near a leaking pipe.
8. Replace a component such as a cooling pump.

Sorry gardners and busboys. A robot that can do all of these can weed a garden and clear a table. Oh, and that part about robots falling down stairs? Here is a new video from DARPA showcasing a robot  that “is expected to be used as government-funded equipment (GFE) for performers in Tracks B and C of the DARPA Robotics Challenge.”

It is appropriate that the book about how machines are outperforming our expectations is having its expectations outperformed by machines.

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