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  • Madison Whitney

Artificial intelligence is not as smart as you — but it may make better burgers

After the announcement of Auburn University raising the minimum hiring rate to $14.50, experts look toward technological advancements, urging humans to get a head start.

Some fear computers will steal their jobs. Others fear robots will take over the world. Auburn University Director of Cybersecurity Daniel Tauritz alleviates those worries, reminding the public Artificial Intelligence (AI) is young with many lessons left to learn.

But just as humans, AI will grow out of immaturity. Youth is just a season.

Tauritz, who also serves as a faculty adviser for Auburn University's Ethical Hacking Club, says, "AI is still in its infancy, only about 2 years old. It is not very smart, but it is very good at doing simple things efficiently."

Still young and simple, AI is not far from your backyard or office.

Man’s best friend has arrived on campus. But not the furry kind. More accurately, a four-legged robotic dog named Mac.

The McWhorter School of Building Science recently purchased Mac the Robotic Dog from Boston-Dynamics. Mac can be seen on construction sites conducting scans to help project managers.

"You may even see him out for a walk outside Samford Hall," said Eric Wetzel, assistant professor of building science.

Weighing in at 80 pounds and standing almost 3 feet tall, Mac is getting the job done. With the contrasting colors of yellow and black, Mac looks like Bumblebee from the popular Transformer movies.

Like a transformer, Mac is tough as nails.

"As a quadruped, he can deal with rough terrain at a construction site and step over and avoid things. This type of robot is the first that can actively be deployed on a construction site without getting stuck in mud or blocked by things sitting on the ground," Wetzel said.

The robotic dog allows a time-consuming task to be completed autonomously while allowing field engineers to handle other tasks on the job site.

"If you think in generalities, robotics is most effective in three scenarios—a repetitive task that humans don't necessarily like doing; a task that is harmful to humans that leads to injuries; and environments that are dangerous, like caves or buildings that are condemned," he said. "When you look at a robot like Mac, you can check the box on all three,” Wetzel said.

Mac has become a best friend of McWhorter. But will Mac become a competitor of mankind?

Jong Hyung Chung, assistant professor of economics, examined the impact of industrial robots on US labor markets between 2005 and 2016.

Chung and his research partner Yong Suk Lee concluded, "Average wages decrease with robot exposure in the earlier periods, but the effect gradually rebounds and becomes non-negative in the more recent periods."

Mac the robotic dog is an example of this. Although Mac eliminates the low-skilled job of measuring and scanning, he opens the door to new opportunities with a larger paycheck for fellow engineers.

"Through my research, I have heard McDonald's CEOs saying they will adopt more robot-based workers if the federal minimum wage gets too high," said Chung. "I think with the development of AI and robotics, it is quite possible that more and more labor gets replaced. Although this will happen regardless of the minimum wage, raising it will accelerate the replacement."

White Castle, a hamburger chain restaurant, announced last summer a new partnership with a California-based robotics company with the invention of "Flippy."

"Flippy is an automated kitchen assistant that prepares and flips burgers," Tauritz shared.

Flippy was initially designed and tested in 2018, but with the events of COVID-19, Flippy entered the kitchen to combat lower labor supply and prevent the spread of foodborne pathogens.

Although a representative of White Castle said they are not looking at Flippy to replace employees but instead cut back on food costs, Chung shares that "unemployment in the fast-food service is going to be a cost."

Although automation and AI have proven helpful in increasing production and efficiency, Tauritz said it is too early to worry about most occupations.

Tauritz said he believes that automation will replace tedious jobs, explaining that some employees deserve better pay and a more fulfilling job. “As long as we combine the automation with providing training with upskilling people, we are going to see benefits.”

Economics professor Chris Vickers supports Tauritz and said he believes if opportunities for skill increases are available, we will see job advancements. “It is a natural desire to want to climb the hierarchy,” Vickers explained.

Despite the decrease of lower-end jobs, Tauritz provides the bright side to the doom that some cannot see past.

"It will free up people to do much more interesting work but will require them to get more skilled. Electricians, plumbers and woodworkers are in no danger of losing their jobs. The trades are examples of jobs that AI is not even close to being able to accomplish. It's people that are standing in line making widgets that are going to disappear," Tauritz explained.

In terms of health care, AI has augmented surgeons through robot-assisted surgeries. "However, we are far from replacing nurses, if that will even happen," Tauritz suggested.

How many people would want a robot inserting an IV?

"One thing I do not think most people understand about AI is it can truly only replicate. It cannot create," said Tauritz.

Robots have performed Mozart and Beethoven and can use data to compose the correct notes, but could robots take over the next music festival? Unlikely, according to Tauritz.

Automation may seem scary, but it is nothing new.

"The number of people working in agriculture 30 years ago was extremely high. Then factories took over. If you look in the United States now, there are fewer workers in agriculture since so much of it is automated," explained Tauritz.

Automation is not always so bad. If it weren't for automation, the COVID-19 pandemic would have had even wider spread complications.

"The pandemic has shown the effectiveness and importance of factories. Factories cannot get sick. Machines do not fear getting sick. If you thought you had seen it all during the pandemic, imagine what would have happened if you couldn't get your favorite cereal at the grocery store or order the sports jersey your son wanted for Christmas," said Tauritz.

For those that fear job dilution, Tauritz encourages that this can improve the livelihood for you and your families.

"See this as an opportunity," he said, with motivation.

For those that conspire the next war to be a battle against robots, Tauritz jokes that perhaps we may have already put too much trust into technology.

"Yes, it would become very scary if we became fully reliant on AI robots, but you know, let's not fool ourselves — haven't we already done that?" Tauritz asked.

Navigation apps, rideshare apps, smart assistants like Amazon's Alexa, spam filters for email, facial recognition, online banking, even autonomous vehicles like Teslas are examples Tauritz provides to support his argument that robots may be some of our closest friends that we interact with every day.

Everyone is familiar with the term ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’ Vickers and Tauritz echo this cliché by encouraging those in low-skill jobs to seize any opportunity that comes their way.

Tauritz jokes with honest fear in his eyes that perhaps, if society becomes too reliant on AI, that would be the only red flag to halt the advancements.

Too little, too late.

"What if we become too reliant on AI and it stops working? What will we do? Right now, if the electricity went out, we would have complete chaos in the country. When the internet or even Facebook goes out, some people do not know how to survive and get anxious. It would be much worse than that," said Tauritz

Tauritz and Chung warn that more data will be collected as the decades go on, allowing AI to become stronger. Over time, "new flashcards will be written," and AI will slowly creep up the career chain, they explain.

Maybe the next McDonald’s Big Mac burger will truly be made by a Mac. After an order is placed at a kiosk, perhaps a robot dog or computer will be grilling in the kitchen.

"Then could you ask, 'what is the point of humans anymore?'" Tauritz suggests. "But I won't be answering that. That is a question for the philosophy department."

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