Ch 5: You Were Promised Robots

Crowdsourcing As a Shortcut to the Technological Singularity (Free E-book)

Next Chapter… (CH 6 Big Data Vs. Tiny Tasks)

You Could Be The Robot!

Let’s start with short story:

Soup-Cans and Chore-Bots

You get home after an afternoon of volunteering at the soup-kitchen. You were the volunteer coordinator.
To the surprise of everyone, today, something unsettling happened with one of your volunteer controlled telepresence-robots, the one whose job it was to check the dates of canned-food donations and sort them on the shelves.
So, here’s what happened. Apparently, the volunteer who was supposed to be controlling your robot fell asleep (he had been up late studying for a test the night before)… Then, his eight-year-old brother thought it would be hilarious to take over and throw a can of cranberry sauce right through one of the windows. Yes, it was while people were eating…
In short, the day was kind of a mess. (You also almost ran out of food at one point, and a fight almost broke out between two people in line). Anyways, you’re done now, and you just want to enjoy being home and start relaxing.
You sit down in your recliner, and you ask your home telepresence-robot to fetch you a bottle of sparkling juice from your fridge. It takes a few seconds, but then your robot speaks, “It’s Bob who will do this for $0.05”, and you say “okay”. A man’s face pops up on the screen of your robot, and he looks around (with the robot’s camera) for your kitchen. He finds it, and he goes to bring you your drink. It takes him a whole three minutes, and he scares your cat out of the room by bumping into a bar-stool. It’s a little noisy and unsettling, but, hey, at least you didn’t have to get up!
Drink in hand, you now watch some TV, and you suddenly remember that your husband’s coming home soon, and he needs to get to bed shortly after.
You ask your robot this time to make the bed. You get quoted $2, and it estimates it will take at least 20 minutes. You agree to that, and you find out it’s ‘Cheryl’ that will do this task this time because she has a high-ranking for bed-making in the system. Her face then pops-up on the screen, and off she goes!
(You think to yourself…Man, it’s a good time to be alive. Thanks Cheryl!)

Without being an expert in robots, it’s hard to talk about them, but we all have at least the experience of being impatient for one…for the long-promised, do-it-all domestic robot, that is. So, let’s talk about that!

The Promise

Every few years,we see a video of a robot doing something impressive, and we get our hopes up. We can’t help it…

We’ve seen robots do things like pouring glasses of water, shaking people’s hands, or even running up flights of stairs. Every time you encounter one of these new spectacles, it makes you wonder:

How far are we from living side by side with super-capable, super-helpful robots?

Well, in the end, the short answer is probably decades, but I believe, if we combine what we know about robotics with the power of crowdsourcing (instead of just AI), the answer may be sooner. Maybe just a few short years.

Why Are We Waiting?

The real question posed here is this:

  • Why are we waiting for “artificial intelligence” (robot brains) when we already have “the real thing”…

Human-intelligence is cheaply and conveniently at our disposal right-now, all available online. You see, in a sense, human-level AI already exists, but it’s in the current form of microtasking and macrotasking websites (i.e., platforms where people are trained and ready to do tasks).

Microtasking is an established industry, and within it, there are literally millions of reliable, sane people online, ready, eager, and willing to work for money, to volunteer for a good cause, or to do tasks for the fun of it.

Next, is another important question…

What Would Satisfy Your Desire for Robot Help?

We are all excited by the idea of having robot-helpers around the house, but what would really satisfy this fantasy? What would they have to do?

  • Would they have to make us a sandwich using ingredients in our fridge?
  • Would they have to make our beds?
  • Would they do our laundry?
  • What about walking the dog?
  • What?

I would say that if a moderately-priced robot could do even a fraction of these things (even if it took them all day to do it while I was at work), it would start to look like a worthy investment.

Do We Have the Right Robots to Make This Work?

As for the robots themselves, very simple robots and basic robotic arms are no longer too expensive to be out of reach for middle to low income buyers. Even modern robot toys have impressive functionality these days. For a few hundred more dollars, these things can be outfitted to better manipulate the physical world via human control. Imagine, for example, a simple two-wheel self-balancing telepresence-robot with light, long, thin robotic arm attached.

A robot like this could be controlled on a task-by-task basis in exchange for small payments via a microtasking platform’s app in a tablet that could function as the brain / control center of the

What Happens When Virtual Knowledge-Work Becomes Physical Skilled-Work?

If this was a hit, what would the world look like if doing things in the real-world started blended with doing tasks online?

It’s difficult to say how this would affect the economy, people’s average work day, or what choices it will start forcing us to make, but it does guarantee that more people will have more options for doing work and hiring workers as well as volunteers.


Of course, this would not come without risks, risks like workers engaging in stalking, inappropriate behavior, and, of course, the danger of physical harm.

However, if a task-based-marketplace was well-managed, and accountability was a high-priority within it, it might not be as bad as some would guess.

Also, keep in mind, telepresence is going to be part of our future no matter what, and robots themselves will probably also be regulated much like drones are now. So, thankfully, it will not be up to the crowdsourcing-field alone to figure these things out.

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