A couple years ago we commented on an advertisement for General Motors during the Super Bowl.
To very briefly describe the script, a line full of robots is busily making some GM vehicles (that look remarkably like GM vehicles from last year, which look remarkably like vehicles from five years ago…). One robot drops a screw, the other robots frown at him, and the miscreant is shown the door. He wanders through the wilderness looking for odd jobs such as the speaker at a drive-thru restaurant, looking forlornly at all the GM vehicles driving by, before finally throwing himself off a bridge. Quite a story to tell in sixty seconds.
So that is supposed to show GM’s new (again) commitment to quality. Where are the people?
One of the fundamental problems of automation is the fact that machines and robots can’t innovate. The ubiquitous "lights out factory" that so many traditional manufacturing managers aspire to create can never have a continuous improvement program. Toyota receives dozens and even hundreds of suggestions per employee per year, and they estimate that those suggestions, small and large, add several percent to their annual productivity improvements. When was the last time you saw a robot give a suggestion?
Now we have a story about a robot that can supposedly conduct an orchestra.
ASIMO, a robot designed by Honda Motor Co., met its latest challenge Tuesday evening: Conducting the Detroit Symphony in a performance of "The Impossible Dream" from "Man of La Mancha." "Hello, everyone," ASIMO said to the audience in a childlike voice, then waved to the orchestra. As it conducted, it perfectly mimicked the actions of a conductor, nodding its head at various sections and gesturing with one or both hands. ASIMO took a final bow to enthusiastic shouts from the audience.
Eerily human… perhaps. There was one element missing:
ASIMO has its limits. ASIMO’s engineers programmed the robot to mimic Charles Burke, the Detroit Symphony’s education director, as he conducted the piece in front of a pianist about six months ago. But it can’t respond to the musicians. During the first rehearsal, the orchestra lost its place when ASIMO began to slow the tempo, something a human conductor would have sensed and corrected, said bassist Larry Hutchinson.
"It’s not a communicative device. It simply is programmed to do a sense of gestures," said Leonard Slatkin, the orchestra’s musical director. "If the orchestra decides to go faster, there’s nothing the robot can do about it. Hopefully, I keep that under control."
Just as in the ubiquitous "lights out" factory, the robot can’t communicate. Or innovate. Which is the key characteristic that makes humans worth more than the simple assemblies created by moving hands.