To automate, or not to automate? Working with kids

A Glimpse of the Future?

In recent weeks my mid-week posts have focused on the contemporary trend among all kinds of industries to increasingly use robotics or other types of automation, rather than hiring extra workers.

It’s a phenomenon that impacts all kinds of workers–in ALL socio-economic brackets, except maybe for that seemingly-impervious top 1%–and across widely-varied industries. Today, in the last of this series, I intend to address the topic that originally inspired me to look into it in the first place.

I am a retired teacher. Indeed, from its inception in 2009 through mid-2013, the title of this blog was Artdog Educator, and it focused pretty exclusively on education topics. Although both I and the blog have shifted our focus since then, I have been and always will be professionally interested in how people learn.

Thus, I was dumbfounded to read in Education Week recently that there actually are people in New York who think it’s a good idea to save money by replacing substitute teachers with e-learning. What is e-learning? In case you couldn’t figure it out, it’s training conducted via the Internet.

Now . . . educators have anything but a stellar history in the use of digital media for teaching. For a variety of understandable but lamentable reasons, it has taken heroic efforts to get educators anywhere close to up-to-speed in this area. I examined that dynamic in some detail, in a 2011 series that kicked off with the post Teaching Like it’s 1980.

Slowly and painfully, however, educators at all levels have finally–somewhat–in spite of all countervailing forces–embraced digital media. Given that, and the global movement to automate all possible jobs (whether it’s a good idea or not), some brilliant genius, sooner or later, was going to come up with this.

As with the periodic call to “run education like a business,” I can guarantee you that no one who has ever actually BEEN a substitute teacher came up with this plan. I, on the other hand, have racked up ten years’ cumulative, hard-won substitute-teaching experience. 

A little boy and his teacher observe as a Nao robot (by Aldebaran Robotics) writes an equation.

First, let’s backtrack a bit. In my research for this series I’ve run onto the idea that robots or automation could take over several different aspects of childcare or education, from babysitting through early learning, distance learning, and substitute teaching.

It’s intuitive, right? I mean, kids seem inextricably attached to their digital devices, and, after all, parents have been parking their kids in front of the “electronic babysitter” (AKA television/videos) for years.

Great idea! The Trix Cereal Rabbit as your babysitter. What could possibly go wrong?

Sure. And if you think “Nao” or the TV could actually be a good babysitter in the total absence of parents or other supervising adults, just try it. See how quickly you come up on child endangerment charges!

A robot, at the current level of development, couldn’t control the situation. The kid knows that thing isn’t a real person, and has no authority. S/he would play with it for a while, get bored, and go wandering off unsupervised to face the myriad dangers of whatever the world threw at him/her.

Digital media present the same problem in the substitute-teaching scenario. Used in conjunction with a good lesson plan and alert (adult, human, in-charge) substitute teacher, they’ve gotten many a class through many a lesson with some actual learning and student engagement taking place.

E-learning can’t replace an engaging, knowledgeable human teacher who’s firmly in charge of things.

Absent the alert, adult, human, in-charge substitute teacher, you’ve got guaranteed chaos. No matter what the grade penalties, 99% of any class will do anything BUT the busywork on the computer. Any class I ever stepped into as a substitute was extremely reluctant to conduct “business as usual.” They generally required a very firm hand and a lot of creative engagement to successfully establish a genuine learning environment. 

The intrinsic fascination with learning via the Internet has long since faded for digital natives; to them, it’s old hat. They need to believe it’s worth their time–AND more interesting than all the other things they could be doing–for any plan to “replace substitute teachers with e-learning” to actually work.

Digital natives are doing their own thing, when they’re totally wrapped up in their digital media. Doesn’t mean they’ll do lessons unsupervised.

Substitute teaching, done well, is hard work (kinda like nursing! Or developing and writing news stories! Or . . . you get the idea, I hope). It requires a dedicated professional who knows the discipline s/he is to teach, if it’s not to be a wasted “babysitting day”–and we haven’t been able to afford those, for a long time.

If the Independent Budget Office of the City of New York (or any other bright-eyed bean-counters in a similar position) think otherwise, they should try it for themselves. I dare them.

Meanwhile, if they can’t get enough qualified substitute teachers, maybe they should try offering them “combat pay.”

IMAGES: Thanks yet again to Before it’s News, for the “vision of the future” graphic. The e-learning photo is courtesy of UNITAR/UN ESCAP E-Learning. Many thanks to International Business Times, for the photo of the NAO robot in a south Australian classroom (note adult human teacher also in the picture), and to Frenzy Advertisement for the photo of the kids watching a Trix commercial on TV. Many thanks to TheSHRINKRap’s post “Engaging teachers means engaged students,” for the photo of the teacher with an engaged group of students, and to CathNews USA for the photo of the student with an iPad.

To automate, or not to automate? Robo-health-care?

A Glimpse of the Future?

Several recent mid-week posts have addressed aspects of the contemporary and projected issue of automation in the workplace–especially in the area of “machines taking over our jobs.”

A growing number of people think that artificially intelligent robots might take over jobs in white-collar professions, moving far beyond the traditional roles of “the three D’s: dangerous, dirty, and dull,” as robotics expert Ryan Calo calls them. Today I want to talk about health care.

Exactly what do people mean, when they talk about robots “taking over” the jobs of doctors, nurses, or other health care workers? I’m not sure all mean the same things. One thing they almost certainly do not mean is Emergency Medical Holgram Mark I (as portrayed by actor Robert Picardo on TV’s Star Trek: Voyager from 1995-2001).

Don’t expect to meet any Emergency Medical Holograms in your neighborhood hospital anytime soon!

But it’s a question worth asking, all the same. Richard and Daniel Susskind noted in a 2016 Harvard Business Review article that “There are more monthly visits to the WebMD network, a collection of health websites, than to all the doctors in the United States.”

Okay. But is that a salient observation? A quick Internet check to research a question for free takes a whole lot less time, hassle and expense than a trip to see your doctor. I’m not sure this compares apples to apples, guys.

Also, I don’t know any health care professionals who greet with joy (or any expectation of an accurate analysis) the news that their patient looked up his problem on WebMD and has already diagnosed it, “so doctor, you just have to prescribe this kind of pill for me . . .”

Yeah, right. WebMD is a research resource, not a doctor, any more than FindLaw.Com is a lawyer.

Do medical websites such as WebMD actually erode trust between doctors and patients? A 2015 post on LiveClinic Healthcare Blog makes a point that in some cases they might.

However, the Susskinds’ research involved a comprehensive survey of the literature about changes in industry, automation technology, and society, as well as more than 100 interviews with experts in cutting-edge development from a variety of disciplines, so their analysis shouldn’t be discounted or ignored.

When they looked at all the various things doctors and other professionals do, they found that “when professional work is broken down into component parts, many of the tasks involved turn out to be routine and process-based. They do not in fact call for judgment, creativity, or empathy.” In other words, although we don’t have terribly creative or empathic robots currently, there are elements to a professional’s job which don’t require those traits. It’s not hard to make the leap to the idea of the doctor delegating those things to a machine.

It’s true that surgical robots can do many procedures a human surgeon simply could not. Very few of them currently involve autonomous robotics–a doctor still has his/her hands on the controls. But that could change as these machines grow more sophisticated. FW: Thinking has a really informative video on this topic that I hope you’ll find as interesting as I did (relax: no blood) :

There also are other uses for robots that may not exactly eliminate the human doctor’s role so much as extend it. Some retail pharmacy chains, such as CVS and Rite Aid, have been piloting in-store health kiosks. Robert Thompson of Rite Aid says his stores’ interface “pairs licensed healthcare providers with state-of-the-art technology to deliver a truly unique solution to consumers looking for convenient and quality healthcare.” 


Telemedicine has enjoyed a worldwide advent, out of necessity.  “Doctors are examining patients continents away with interactive robots and hi-tech visuals. These robots are fully mobile, with computer screens for heads and real-time video cameras for eyes and ears. Doctors operate them by using a joystick and wireless technology.”

The Doctor will see you now . . . via telemedicine. There’s still a human doctor in this equation, so it’s not exactly a replacement. You might note there’s also a real live human healthcare practitioner at the patient’s bedside as well. Robots have seen particularly robust adoption in Japanese hospitals.

Extending the role of doctors may become an absolute necessity in the near future. We’ve heard about a looming worldwide shortage of doctors for years, and in April 2016 the Association of American Medical Colleges pointed to strong indicators of coming shortages in the U.S., in several broad categories. We may end up coping with this in a variety of ways, including more care given by physicians’ assistants or nurse practitioners–or the use of telemedicine or other automated functions.

There’s a shortage of nurses, too, which is leading some observers to predict automation will move into that job category, too. In 2015 a headline on the Horizon Healthcare Staffing website rather chillingly proclaimed, “Robots will replace nurses sooner rather than later,” which I think would worry me if I worked for Horizon Healthcare Staffing. As with doctors, however, when you look at the details I think replace may be a stretch, at least in the near term. More like “assist” or “augment.”

Introducing Actroid-F, a robotic nurse created by Kokoro Co. Ltd. This robot is designed to provide bedside empathy to patients, but I fear she would seriously weird me out–she’s most definitely from Uncanny Valley territory, in my view! The Japanese, however, reportedly have a more comfortable cultural relationship with robots. I sure hope so.

The HHS article describes the entry of robots into the Japanese health care setting in glowing terms: “Robots already play a key role in Japanese hospitals and healthcare facilities. They are able to look after senior citizens, sing with them, and engage with them in other activities.” Maybe seniors like to sing with them; who knows? After all, the Japanese were the ones who invented karaoke.

However, a motivating factor for the increasing use of robots in Japan is the fear that as the Japanese population ages, there won’t be enough health care workers to take care of them if they don’t create robots to do so. I think if they insist on using exclusively Japanese health care workers they’re right, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

This is Panasonic’s Hospi Type R, essentially a self-driving medicine chest on wheels, “designed to move fragile or bulky medicine and equipment around a hospital.” Wi-fi, cameras, and preprogrammed maps help it navigate; it’s locked by a system that uses an ID security card for access. It was nicknamed “the pink Dalek”–clearly by someone who doesn’t have a clue about the Daleks‘ favorite one-word catchphrase!


In the Asian healthcare scene, “More and more, hospitals all over the world are realizing that robots are efficient messengers who transport materials like food, x-rays, and linens throughout the hospital, saving wear and tear on the feet of over-worked nurses and aides.” Or medicines–pharmacy robots on wheels!–as does the Hospi Type R, shown above.

To my mind a good argument for using robots in a nursing situation would be for tasks “that are physically very demanding and stressful for humans”  (All at once we’re back to Ryan Calo’s “three Ds”).

This is Robear, a prototype robot designed in an effort not to scare the living crap out of fragile elderly patients while it helps to transport them safely. Why a bear? It’s supposed to look “like a friendly polar bear.” Okay. Well, no uncanny valley problems here, anyway!

Not sure how Robear would work in real life? here’s a very short video:

Horizon Healthcare Staffing might not be able to get their hands on this nifty new tech fast enough, but I’ll be interested to see how well the public accepts Robear, the “pink Dalek,” Actroid-F, and their robotic kin.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before it’s News, for the “vision of the future” graphic, and to Bonnie Hutchinson’s “Star Trek Voyager” Pinterest Board for the photo of Robert Picardo as EMH Mark I. 

I appreciated not only the photo of a doctor and patient talking to each other on LiveClinic’s interesting article “Do Computers erode Doctor and Patient Trust?” but also the article itself, which provides an interesting counterpoint to the Susskinds’ observation about WebMD. 

Many thanks to the Re-Tails Blog‘s post about health care robotics in retail pharmacies, for the photo of the telemedicine delivery robot with the hospital patient. 

My gratitude also goes out to WeirdAsiaNews for the photos of the robotic nurse Actroid-F, to The Verge for the photo of the Panasonic Hospi Type R, to NationalFutur, for the still photo of the Robear, and to WXYZ-TV Detroit and YouTube for the video of Robear in action. 

To automate, or not to automate? The uncanny valley

A Glimpse of the Future

My mid-week post for the past two weeks has addressed a disruptive technology of major importance in the current global job situation: automation for greater productivity.

Robots and automated processes have already moved well beyond doing only what robotics expert Ryan Calo called “the three D’s: dangerous, dirty, and dull.” 

Last Wednesday I examined some of the ways robots and automation are replacing some types of traditionally minimum-wage or low-wage jobs, sometimes in appropriate ways, but other times in what some (including me) might consider needless, or less reasonable, ways.

Today I’d like to move up the social ladder a bit, because it’s not only blue-collar jobs that proponents of automation or robotics are proposing to pre-empt.

According to the research I’ve done for this series, doctors, nurseslawyers, financial advisorswriters, teachers, and child-care workers are also in the cross-hairs. At this rate, nobody can afford to get too smug. If professions requiring higher-level thinking and analysis are in danger from automation, NO job is safe.

Is that actually a real threat, though? Won’t there be at some point an “uncanny valley” effect? The uncanny valley is a problem in both animation and robotics. If you make something look or act extremely realistic–but just short of indistinguishable from the real thing–people react with revulsion. It strikes them as creepy.

The Uncanny Valley can be a scary place!

Could the uncanny valley save white-collar jobs? Well, maybe. The verdict is still out. There’s evidence that once people become accustomed to the almost-real look, they find it less repulsive. In other words, don’t count on it.

The end result SHOULD lie in whether the automation actually does a more satisfactory job than a competent human could. Meanwhile, this is a great source of thought experiments for science fiction writers, futurists, technological ethicists, and many others.

I’ve gotta say though, I find it interesting I haven’t yet seen any proposals that AIs should take over research chairs in the field of robotics research.

But think about it. Once we’ve reached the singularity, is there any career they’d find more interesting?

I’d bet not.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before it’s News for the “looking to the future” graphic, and to G Financial Services Marketing for the “ranks of white-collar robots” illustration. I’m grateful to PandaStrike for the illustrated Uncanny Valley graph, and to HR Zone for the robot photo.

To automate, or not to automate? First thoughts

A Glimpse of the Future

Automation and robotics have been making a lot of inroads, lately, and the trend seems unlikely to change.

Unless you live in a particular fringe political neighborhood, you’re aware that the vast majority of those jobs have been taken by automation designed to boost productivity. According to one study conducted by Ball State University that looked at manufacturing job losses in the US between the years 2000 and 2010, 87% of those jobs went to productivity, but only 13% to trade.

Losing one’s job to a robot is far more likely than losing it to workers in Mexico or China. It’s not really a new story. As the Ball State study illustrates, it’s been going on for decades, and not only in manufacturing. An NBC article from several years ago gave a list of jobs that humans could lose to robots in the near future.

The trend is spreading, inevitably. Sometimes it’s a good thing. Astronauts might be sexy, but humans shouldn’t be the first things we send to new places in space. I think I speak for many when I say I’m happy to see Spirit and Opportunity go to Mars before people brave its hazards.

A NASA artist’s conception of the Mars Rover Spirit.

An argument could be made that automation in certain sectors makes things faster, more efficient, and less error-prone. My husband works in a diagnostic lab where processors and stainers perform many routine tests that once were run by hand. An argument could be made that pharmacy automation might be less subject to corruption or error (though there are many ways humans could take advantage if the system isn’t carefully set up and monitored).

This is an automated slide-maker and stainer for a specific laboratory purpose. It delivers consistent results that would be hard to achieve at speed by hand.

But here we start to run into a gray area. There still are things it seems likely robots are a long way from being able to do as well as a skilled, trained human.

My husband, for instance, is still the experienced tech the doctors call upon to quality-check for diagnostic results whenever they do certain kinds of biopsies.

Automated pharmacy equipment from RoboPharma (yes, that’s really their name).

The pharmacy robot may be able to package up pills at the speed of light, but how will it do when you need advice about the best cream to use for the persistent itch you have, or which syrup might work best for your baby’s cough?

I plan to explore this question in more detail next week.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before It’s News for the “future” graphic, the CNN Money for the graph illustrating the Ball Stat University study, and to Electronicsb2b for the photo of the robotic automotive assembly line. Many thanks to the invaluable Wikipedia for the image of the Mars rover Spirit, to Abbot Labs for the photo of their Cell-Dyn SMS slidemaker and stainer and to RoboPharma for the photo of the automated pharmacy equipment.