MHC featured in Robot magazine.

Robot Magazine cover

This story by Siri Wheeler '90 originally appeared in the May/June 2016 edition of Robot magazine. Republished with permission April 26, 2016.

Mount Holyoke College explores technology and the future of jobs with an interdisciplinary approach

An economist, a political scientist, an entrepreneur and a robotics professor walk into a bar… If you don’t think that sounds like a promising start to a joke, you’re probably right. On the other hand, if you would like to be a fly on the wall for the unusual conversation that follows, read on.

In the January/February 2016 issue of Robot magazine, we published an interview with author and software entrepreneur, Martin Ford, about his book, Rise of the Robots. The book presents a thought-provoking ― you might be forgiven for calling it chilling ― look at what lies ahead for a human workforce facing growing competition from our own software and machines. Not to give away any spoilers but the challenges inherent in this scenario will not be easy to solve. This is where the above-mentioned cast of characters comes in.

Recently at Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts, (a venerable institution not only with strong math and science programs but also a long history of teaching two things often cited as most lacking at the highest levels of STEM fields: women and liberal arts) I had a chance to attend a conference organized by Professor, Eva Paus to discuss “The Future of Jobs: The Dual Challenges of Globalization and Robotization”. The conference was held as part of an interdisciplinary course offered at the college and jointly taught by faculty from Mount Holyoke’s departments of Economics, Computer Science, Politics, Physics and Philosophy.

Image of panel at the Future of Jobs Conference

In addition to the Mount Holyoke faculty, speakers brought to campus for the conference included Martin Ford who presented his research on mechanization and jobs, Manuela Veloso, Computer Science Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who works on robotics and artificial intelligence, David Rueda, Professor of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University, Guy Standing Professor in Development Studies at SOAS at the University of London, Robert Pollin, Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Irmgard Nuebler, a Senior Economist at the International Labour Organization, and many other experts on the economy and labor markets worldwide.

While all aspects of the future of jobs and the economy were under discussion, we at Robot were particularly interested in how the panelists and students, some who are science and math majors and some who are majoring in economics or politics, would respond to the assertion that their economic future may be in jeopardy thanks to sophisticated software, artificial intelligence and robots. We wanted to know what a roboticist, an economist, a political scientist and a futurist would say to each other and the rest of us about the future of technology and jobs. The ability to synthesize knowledge from differing fields is the particular strength of the liberal arts. How does it apply to thinking about our future with robotics?

Can we hold back the technology?

Readers of Robot won’t have to pause long to come up with an answer to this question which was raised at the conference. “Buy a Roomba,” was the half tongue-in-cheek advice of computer science and robotics professor, Manuela Veloso from Carnegie Mellon, who urges everyone to get used to living and working alongside robots― and enjoying the luxury of having a robot do your vacuuming―because robots are not going away. In her presentation, Dr. Veloso helped ease any concern among the uninitiated about the imminent replacement of humans with machines by explaining how the robots she and her students work with, CoBots, rely on a mixture of  programming, machine learning and human help to function in human environments. The CoBot can escort you to Dr. Veloso’s office, for example, but it currently needs you to push the button on the elevator and tell it when it has reached the correct floor. Dr. Veloso provided insight into how her team has tackled various challenges with their CoBots, such as learning how to navigate through a building using a pre-loaded floorplan, Kinect depth-sensing cameras and WiFi. How does a robot use a depth sensing camera to navigate across a bridge made entirely of glass? It doesn’t unless you give it something that isn’t transparent to “look” at, like a rail or a radiator along the side of the glass wall. In “learning” to work with humans, the robot also relies on many of the same strategies we do, such as getting input from other humans and looking up information on the internet when needed a concept known as “Symbiotic Autonomy”.

Symbiotic Autonomy accelerates the robot’s ability to acclimate. Many challenges remain to be overcome, as anyone who follows robotics development closely will know, and understanding and overcoming these are efforts that will certainly keep developers and researchers employed for quite some time. Professor Veloso urged the students in the audience to get involved in working on artificial intelligence, as rather than being spectators to the evolution of robots, it is best to be active in creating a future in which robots are comfortably integrated with humans.

Robots and makers at Mount Holyoke
Robotics has been part of the computer science curriculum for a few years at Mount Holyoke College, thanks in part to the efforts of Dr. Audrey St. John who came to Mount  Holyoke in 2008 as a visiting professor and joined the faculty in 2011. Professor St. John took us to meet some of her students and one of their robots in the college’s new Maker Space, a large, sunny room equipped with a laser cutter, 3D printer, vinyl cutters, soldering irons and other tools, plenty of wires, computers and enthusiasm. The fun these students were having with the technology was infectious. Here’s a look at how the students are getting ready to meet the challenges of the technology economy.

Image of the Mount Holyoke College Maker Space
Above: Mount Holyoke’s Maker Space opened officially in the fall of 2015. Shani Mensing, a recent graduate of the college, works as the Coordinator in the Maker Space, assisting students with their projects and keeping the equipment in working order.

What about jobs?

The pressure on jobs that arises from mechanization is well demonstrated and the economists and political scientists on hand for this conference on The Future of Jobs were able to present substantial data to that effect. It’s hard to ignore the fact that an economic powerhouse in today’s economy like Google employs far fewer people than General Motors did in its hay day. However, automation and artificial intelligence are not the only pressures that challenge the job market and our economic future. Climate change and globalization present substantial challenges as well, some of which may be alleviated by technology. Not only that but much of the pressure on jobs that we sense in the United States and specifically among traditionally middle class jobs and professions has not been as dramatic in other parts of the world. Cultural and social factors play a significant role as well.

The Mount Holyoke audience will have been relieved to hear the thoughts of Dr. Irmgard Neubler of the International Labor Organization on how to prepare to enter the labor force in the coming years. Neubler suggested that a liberal arts education, which promotes the study of diverse subjects and encourages creativity, is good preparation to meet the needs of a rapidly changing economy. The topic of liberal arts education occasionally comes up in discussions about the urgency of inspiring students to pursue STEM subjects in their schooling and providing sufficient opportunities for them to do so. So to take the positions of Dr. Veloso and Dr. Neubler and synthesize their advice, learn how to think creatively and get ready to be an active player in developing the technology you will be living and working with in the future!

Image of students making repairs to a robot
Above: Shani Mensing, Maker Space Coordinator at Mount Holyoke (left) and Dr. Audrey St. John (right) make minor repairs to a student project robot before demonstrating its obstacle avoidance capabilities.