Robotic Common Sense

There’s constant talk about robots taking jobs from people. You’ve got nurses who are concerned about robo-care-givers, factory workers who cast sideways glances at the already automated tasks around them, and cab drivers who stay awake at night cursing self-driving cars. According to MIT labor economist, David Autor, we don’t need to worry — robots just don’t have the common sense required to take jobs away from humans entirely.

Common sense is an important asset, and it’s tough to try and break it down into an algorithm that a robot might use. Common sense is what allows people to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense, or deduct something without all of the given pieces.

A robot doesn’t conceptually understand things. A program can train a computer to recognize something. If you download every picture of a chair the Internet has to offer, a robot will recognize a chair.

But where a person might see a stump and think, “I can use that stump as a chair,” that robot who has tons of chair pictures in a databank won’t necessarily make that connection. That’s where robot common sense, or a lack thereof, fails.

Autor gives an example of how robots don’t use common sense, rather they just compute what they already know.

For example, both a toilet and a traffic cone look somewhat like a chair, but a bit of reasoning about their shapes vis-à-vis the human anatomy suggests that a traffic cone is unlikely to make a comfortable seat. Drawing this inference, however, requires reasoning about what an object is “for” not simply what it looks like. Contemporary object recognition programs do not, for the most part, take this reasoning-based approach to identifying objects, likely because the task of developing and generalizing the approach to a large set of objects would be extremely challenging.

As of now, technology can’t code common sense for robots to use. That means there are plenty of jobs and tasks that are safe from a robotic workforce.

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