Rice University Professor: SkyNET's Gonna Take Ur Jerbs!

from the derpa-derp dept

It’s sad to note how collective humanity has done an ostrich on the warnings about the machines. Still the NFL exists, robbing us of our best and brightest, who will no longer be available for the coming war with SkyNET. Conferences on what to do about the surely coming robot horde have produced little in the way of a path forward and have gone relatively unreported in any case. Due to this, we know very little about what form the non-existent threat of terminator-like metal monsters will take. Will they simply wage war against us? Will they syphon our body heat for energy? Will they farm our skin and dance around in it to Goodbye Horses, like some kind of graphite Buffalo Bill?

Not according to Rice University professor Moshe Vardi, who claims that they have a far more terrifying plan in store: displacing the human workforce.

Pictured: A Rice University professor in the near future
Image source: CC BY 2.0

According to Vardi, sometime around the year 2045, you won’t have a job any longer because the robots will have taken it away from you.

In recent writings, Vardi traces the evolution of the idea that artificial intelligence may one day surpass human intelligence, from Turing to Kurzweil, and considers the recent rate of progress. Although early predictions proved too aggressive, in the space of 15 years we’ve gone from Deep Blue beating Kasparov at chess to self-driving cars and Watson beating Jeopardy champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Extrapolating into the future, Vardi thinks it’s reasonable to believe intelligent machines may one day replace human workers almost entirely and in the process put millions out of work permanently.

Well, looking back through the history of technological progress, you can certainly see his point. And once you’ve seen that point, you can laugh at it. And once you’ve laughed at it, you can call his local police station and request that they remove any science fiction movies from his home by force, because he’s clearly seen too many of them.

The problem with thinking that artificial intelligence is going to replace us in the workforce is two-fold. First, it cheaply ignores the impact every other form of technological progress has had thus far. Robots are used on assembly lines, yet there’s no drastic net loss of jobs. When the automobile was invented, it isn’t as though the buggy whip makers simply died off in unemployed starvation. There are other jobs to be had, most often created as a direct result of the advance in technology. Assembly line workers become machinists. Buggy whip makers go to work for the auto companies. There can be pain in the market in the short term as it is disrupted, but on a long enough timeline everything seems to even back out.

The second problem is the failure to recognize that people value some products and services provided by our fellow meat-sacks. Can auto-attendant systems handle phone duties? Sure, but there are tons of companies that specifically advertise the concept of customers being able to talk to a “real” person. Can machines make rugs? Yup, yet there’s a huge market in hand-woven rugs out there. And the service industries rely heavily on personality. A machine might be able to serve me my beer at my local watering hole, but will it listen to me complain about my job if I’m having a crappy day? Will it be able to offer me an opinion on which wine is the best on the menu? And, as the article notes, what if any workforce disruption that does occur is desirable?

Perhaps in the future, while some of us work hard to build and program super-intelligent machines, others will work hard to entertain, theorize, philosophize, and make uniquely human creative works, maybe even pair with machines to accomplish these things. These may seem like niche careers for the few and talented. But at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, jobs of the mind in general were niche careers.

I call dibs on being the new Socrates.

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Comments on “Rice University Professor: SkyNET's Gonna Take Ur Jerbs!”

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DavidSG (profile) says:

The new Socrates

“I call dibs on being the new Socrates.”

Close to the mark, I reckon. I have long held the view that what’s needed to cope with the technological change is a social change.

We hold certain values to be self-evident, like the work ethic.
It was not always thus. Ancient Greece had a society where slaves did all the menial work. Substitute robots, or more generally all-pervasive automation, for slaves, and you have the potential to create a similar society but without the misery.

It “only” needs us to change our current value system, which is by no means eternal or immutable. We need to learn to value “non-productive” pursuits, and to educate people into following such pursuits as art, theater, invention and design, maths, teaching the young and the old, etc etc.

Maybe the open source (software, 3D printing) movements are signs of things to come, with millions of people producing very useful things for no financial reward.

PopeRatzo (profile) says:

Re: The new Socrates

We need to learn to value “non-productive” pursuits

Further, we need to learn to value “non-productive” people. It looks like we’ve already hit “peak labor” but the antiquated and useless idea that “everybody has to work to live” is doing nothing but dividing people and causing further misery and strife, especially in developed nations.

In America, we have this sick Calivinist notion of “earning a living”, as if the only acceptable life is a life spent toiling 70% of your waking hours to make someone in the economic elite richer.

The fact that we have people working longer hours than ever even though a greater number of people are unemployed shows just how badly we need a change of values.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: The new Socrates

The fact that we have people working longer hours than ever even though a greater number of people are unemployed shows just how badly we need a change of values.

The fact that you believe this is true, shows just how little history you know. If you were to plot out quality of life vs time, the graph would very much show a positive trend. I’m not saying it never dips, but we are healthier, better educated, safer, and less violent than at any time in human history. Life even just a hundred years ago was a much harsher affair.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: The new Socrates

Too bad my great-grandpa’s not still around. I’d love to hear his stories about all the school shootings and Mexican drug gang violence that happened when he was a kid. But then I’d also have to hear about how bad American kids were at subjects like math and geography and how they were constantly being bested by kids from other countries, and how much worse the air and environmental qualities were back then. Thank goodness we don’t live in a world like that anymore.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: The new Socrates

A million times this. Back when people lived off the earth one would need to respect mother nature timing to do the working. You’d have to wake up early to work while the sun is bearable. Then you’d stop for a long lunch. Between cooking and eating the harsher sun times would be gone and you’d be able to work more till sunset. Then with no electricity you’d be back for a small refreshment in a pond or something then prepare for dinner. You’d sleep early usually and wake up at dawn (biologically we aren’t supposed to sleep 8 hours straight but have a small 1-2h pause as science discovered recently) and people would spend that time productively chatting with their mates/family, reading a book with a candle (depending on where and the job) and have plenty of sex. You see, no such thing as 8h of work daily.

And honestly, how much time anybody effectively works without having to take a break? Becomes pretty obvious.

In America, we have this sick Calivinist notion of “earning a living”, as if the only acceptable life is a life spent toiling 70% of your waking hours to make someone in the economic elite richer.

It’s not America only. And we need to find balance. Instead of profiting several billions large companies could be satisfied with only a few billion or even less. The root of the problem is Capitalism itself. And human greed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Why so terrible?

“on the dole, in which case you are relying on others to do the work.”

I’m sure the above was intended to be a jab at those less fortunate, however, it is also applicable to most corporations who pay minimum wage, less than full time and no benefits. These corporate entities rely upon the taxpayers to make up for what they deem to be not their problem. What’s amazing is they do not seem to see the unavoidable failure lying in wait as they attempt to end social assistance programs, as it is these very programs they rely upon to subsidize their penny pinching business.

Mr.Spothawk (profile) says:

The second problem is the failure to recognize that people value some products and services provided by our fellow meat-sacks.

This is only true in the case that meat-sacks make ‘better’ products, like the example of the antiquated rug. But that’s an exception to the rule.

Robots enable technologies we couldn’t have dreamt about in history. If there’s still a market for handmade circuit-boards, I’ll bet it’s not sufficient to employ even 1% of the workforce that robots have put out of work. These new circuits are much better than the old ones… and smaller and more durable and more energy efficient.

There’s no market for handmade processors. There’s no market for Low Frequency Trading… only people who don’t have the ability to make High Frequency Trading happen.

Yes, people will retrain. But suggesting that we’ll all make artisan versions of what we make today is just silly.

Wolfy says:

What is needed is a different economic model. Money is too concentrated in too few hands by the current model. When fewer people are working, even fewer people will have money. Iain M. Banks in his “Culture” novels explores a society where machine do a great deal of the labor, but people work at things they enjoy, and there is no money.

Torg (profile) says:

There isn’t anything that humans can do that machines are naturally incapable of doing, just things that we haven’t yet figured out how to make machines do. That you talk about people moving to other jobs shows that you haven’t fully considered the ramifications of us figuring out how to make machines do everything. For there to be other jobs there needs to be something humans are better than machines at, and eventually if not necessarily by 2045 there will be no such thing. The greatest human in history is the lower bound of how good at something it may be physically possible to be, and since physical possibility is what matters with technology, future humanity will at a minimum be mass-producing Einsteins, Beethovens, and Leonardo da Vincis. This is going to be less like assembly line workers vs. assembly line robots and more like Homo erectus vs. Homo sapiens.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There isn’t anything that humans can do that machines are naturally incapable of doing, just things that we haven’t yet figured out how to make machines do.

Note the “we” in that sentence.

My observation is that everything that we thought required “intelligence”, e.g. chess, has turned out in practice to be susceptible to a brute force approach of one kind or another. We are still absolutely no nearer having a machine that is really intelligent – as defined by your own criterion “being able to figure out how to do things it can’t yet do.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

able to figure out how to do things it can’t yet do

RadioLab did a story about machines that learn. An example was that by watching a pendulum, it figured out f=ma. Elementary, sure, but it’s something that took people a while to figure out.

It’s been a while since I listened to it, but I think the machine also figured out equations for multi-part pendulums and it took people a long time to figure out that what the machine theorized was in fact correct.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

RadioLab did a story about machines that learn. An example was that by watching a pendulum, it figured out f=ma. Elementary, sure, but it’s something that took people a while to figure out.

However it was set up to figure out pendulum equations so its achievement is no greater than that of the chess playing computers.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Like the previous reply – you miss the point.

The point is that we don’t really know what intelligence is. We set up a problem – only to discover that the problem is susceptible to a brute force approach.

Actually Chess is solvable in principle simply with the rules of the game, a simple tree search algorithm and a sufficiently powerful computer. In the end that was the approach that prevailed. Attempts to play chess the way humans play the game proved to be futile.

Unfortunately good chess playing programs are poor opponents from the entertainment point of view – but the internet solved that problem by making human opponents more available!

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Fixed for you.

My observation is that everything that we thought required “intelligence”, e.g. chess, has turned out in practice to be susceptible to a brute force approach of one kind or another.

“My observation is that everything that we thought required intelligence, e.g. chess, has turned out in practice to be susceptible to a reductionist approach of one kind or another.”

I think talking about real intelligence is like talking about true Scotsmen, since in robotics we are getting closer and closer to dissecting the individual components of human mental processing, and are well on our way towards empathetic robots.

The difference is, we can actually omit the programming in the maidbot to be annoyed at cleaning latrines.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“There isn’t anything that humans can do that machines are naturally incapable of doing, just things that we haven’t yet figured out how to make machines do”

Except have kids, feel empathy, write books, imagine, admire art, feel regret or any other human emotion.

Nor can they really think laterally, or think at all.

Nor will machines EVER be a commercially viable alternative to many, if not most functions that humans perform.

Torg (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Having children in the context of machines would be manufacturing new machines rather than carrying a machine to term via pregnancy, and machines can already manufacture new machines, so that one’s out.

Feeling empathy, writing books, imagining, admiring art, feeling regret or any other human emotion, and various patterns of thought are things we don’t know how to make machines do yet. The fact that humans can do those things shows that it’s possible for things to do those things, therefore it’s possible in principle for us to design things that can do those things. We just need to figure out how.

The Real Michael says:

Actually, there may be some validity to Professor Vardi’s predictions. Among some of the things that already exist: robots stocking inventory in some warehouses (e.g. Amazon), automated checkout lines and kiosks where you do everything yourself, etc.

Foxconn plans to replace 500,000+ workers with robots:

South Korea plans to replace 30,000 English teachers with robots by the end of the decade:

Now don’t get me wrong, some jobs are probably better left to machines, but eventually the economy is going to burst and the fallout isn’t going to be pretty. Unemployment is already at record highs, people are graduating from college only to find themselves living back at home (and in debt) and there’s hardly any job creation, let alone security. Even where they don’t use robots, employers find ways to dance around keeping people employed long-term so as to not have to pay benefits; it’s much easier for them to hire a contractor who will outsource the cheaper labor, then replace as necessary.

Anonymous Coward says:

Certainly robots, both AI and not, can and have replaced humans in various positions where said humans performed robot like functions, and it was relatively easy to do. Beyond that, it becomes much more complicated and it is highly questionable whether this “AI robot takeover” is even possible. There is no doubt many areas where humans can be replaced with highly specialized AI, but is it really cost effective and what is the ROI? In addition, the simple replacement of a job function does not imply intelligence. “Artificial Intelligence” has become a widely accepted term, it is also widely misused and misunderstood. I’m sure many people have AI related products to sell and their opinions are set accordingly, but the future of AI is not as predictable and certain some would have you think.

Anonymous Coward says:

Timothy, I don’t think you’ve really thought this all the way through. Self-driving cars is a relatively easy problem that could put all taxi and truck drivers out of work. The bigger problems happen after singularity. Once computers are “smarter” than the people who designed them (singularity), they will design the next generation of computers. The intelligence of the machines could continue to grow exponentially while human intelligence grows at a much slower rate. Soon humans will also be out of work doing things like phone attendant, car designer, drug designer, physicist, etc…

I don’t even know if the creative fields are safe.

The free market economy can’t deal with this and perhaps centrally planned economies will make a come back only this time instead of being planned by corrupt humans, it will be planned by computers.

*If* singularity occurs, mankind is going to have a tough time adjusting to being the second smartest group on the planet.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“The intelligence of the machines could continue to grow exponentially while human intelligence grows at a much slower rate.”

“Intelligence” means different things to different people, and few agree upon one concise set of words, which they also agree upon, to use in said definition. This is a problem not only for discussions of AI, but elsewhere as well.

Simple projection into the future of present computerized machine usage, assuming a linear function, is plainly ill conceived and quite misleading.

As with most other attempts to predict the future, this one is most likely doomed to failure.

Kal Zekdor (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Ehh… By the time the singularity actually happens, I doubt there’ll be any real distinction between “human” and “machine”. This alarmist notion that ever more intelligent computers will replace humanity precludes the notion that if we can build a machine that’s smarter than us, then we can certainly find a way to make ourselves smarter.

Anonymous Coward says:


In the interest of promoting discussion.

This article says the same thing actually except that our jobs will eventually be replaced with robots and while it will be slow and will be a dark time for us meat-bags we will eventually be able to co-exist with the machines that took our jobs.

Miker (profile) says:

I found this article a rare disappointment. Geigner is completely missing the point: Enhanced productivity for EVERYTHING is not comparable to a few million spot welders making Honda Civics. It’s about automating almost everything, right down to middle management. Even design is much less labor intensive already, but we’ll just ignore those jobs as safe, since keeping such numbers won’t affect mass unemployment one whit.

Yes, there will always be 5-star accommodations with a “personal” (meat-sack) touch, but how many hand-made chairs, brooms, dishes, etc. etc. are sold every year, and what is the average purchasing power of their makers? What will India look like when every basket weaver is replaced by a machine that doesn’t even need a hand-full of rice per day to work? How many such producers are really Village Craftspeople producing artisanal luxury, and how many 3rd world wage slaves making “…glass dishes with tiny bubbles and imperfections, proof that they were crafted by the honest, hard-working, indigenous peoples of…wherever.” And what happens when the ‘bots can do it with just a solar panel?

Geigner is missing the boat; it’s not about welding and painting, it’s EVERY JOB on the line. It’s essentially EVERY JOB at Foxconn. It’s not an olive tree shaker or a GPS-led plow, its ALL of agriculture. Robots to pick tomatoes, strawberries, apples…everything. All the time. Robots to drive the trucks. Automated logistics. Top to bottom AI.

It’s not “but what about the machinists”, it’s “plausibly name a job that can’t be automated away by an arbitrarily competent AI/robot, even if it doesn’t have the ineffable spark of humanity.” Now picture this in every sector, such that Capital will be effectively unfettered, free from the demands of Labor. Congrats Marxists: No more oppression, but at the cost of nearly all jobs.

Clarke’s Law needs a corollary: Any sufficiently advanced automated system WILL take you job unless you can do it more cost-effectively. “Cheaply” ignoring history is a lesser sin than failing to grasp the nearly all-encompassing reach of even good-enough, “weak” AI.

From that point on, it will pretty much have to be redistributionist policies everywhere, all the time. “Citizen Income”, here we come. Alternatives would certainly interest me, but I don’t see any on the horizon.

Kal Zekdor (profile) says:

Re: Re:

All of what you said is absolutely true. You just missed one point. Why is this a bad thing?

Why do you need a “job”? To earn money? Why do you need money? To purchase things you need? Well, what if everything you need, all throughout the line of production, is produced quickly, cheaply, and in quantities surpassing demand? Is there need for money? Is there need for a “job”?

That utopian scenario is likely the end result of industrial automation (if we can figure out raw resource limitations, anyway). Granted, that won’t happen for a long, long time, but until that point, we will always have jobs that need doing.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Ultimately who is the ending point of everything? The consumer human beings. If this catastrophic scenario comes to fruition there will be no humans left to buy what is being produced because there will be no income. Which means that at some point the cost of automation will not be paid and it will not be conducted. It’s a very simple equation. Total automation may be feasible in the future but it’s not desirable by anyone. What we will have to do is to adapt the increasing automating.

We’ll need to review our working policies and our societal norms regarding work. Today a person that wishes to work less is considered some sort of hobo/vagabond or whatever is the word in English. This will have to change. And there will always be demand for human beings from other humans.

Jay (profile) says:

First, it cheaply ignores the impact every other form of technological progress has had thus far. Robots are used on assembly lines, yet there’s no drastic net loss of jobs.

That’s kind of wrong since in the US, we lost millions of jobs thanks to “free trade” agreements and CEOs looking to cut costs.

I recall that the NAFTA agreement during Clinton’s era shipped jobs overseas and the American people didn’t have anything to show for it.

Jobs were created, but it isn’t a guarantee that the displacement of workers equates to better, more high skilled jobs being found here in the US.

And when you really look at the economic policies of the US, it seems more beneficial for the USG to tax people for their needing more education in order to benefit society which is a REALLY backwards equation.

We have high student debt caused by most of the money going to the wealthy while there is nothing to help the US get out of the economic austerity posed on them. It’s a scary situation to be in. Cripple your future growth by giving the people few jobs, few economic opportunities, and try to keep them quiet about what’s going on with your government?

Seems like a frog boiling slowly…

Anonymous Coward says:

dont worry people, they will all be copyright protected so when they start knocking humans off, no one will be allowed to fight back for fear of being sued over infringement! that way, the top execs will be able to live on and award themselves fantastic salaries, even like now, they wont be producing anything worth while!!

Anonymous Coward says:

I guess I’m gonna have to go against the flow on this one. I tend to agree with commenter #18 on this one. It’s not just the buggy whip makers that will be out of a job.

Yeah, there will be new jobs open up, they just won’t be in the volume of the jobs before. It’s not just one class or one particular job. It’s the mass of jobs lost nearly all at once as a series of employers one after another retool to remove human for machine cheap labor.

I sort of saw some of this as one major employer retooled and laid off. The lay-offs didn’t come all at once. First it was the contract, third party crew. For our particular group that was around 30 people, while the company hands kept their jobs. Then came the company hands getting laid off. 10% a year. When the dust cleared and it was over, the crew went from 130 people to 28. There was lots of reshuffling of job responsibility but little pay increase for the increase in work load. The new jobs created came out to be maybe 3 for working on the automation side. This happened company wide of which we saw only a very small smidgeon.

Basically those jobs left and didn’t come back and didn’t get shipped elsewhere. Automation got them.

While you lay out a case of the rich will always like the personal touch, by itself that’s not enough to hold an economy together with everyone working.

As commenter #18 mentioned, it’s not just one job, it’s every job. All at once.

Andrew F (profile) says:


When the automobile was invented, it isn’t as though the buggy whip makers simply died off in unemployed starvation.

Horses did.

Can machines make rugs? Yup, yet there’s a huge market in hand-woven rugs out there.

And some people enjoy riding horses — that doesn’t mean demand for horses is anywhere close to what it was in 1910.

People aren’t horses of course. As the economy changes, people can adapt to provide labor in a way horses can’t. But people adapt slowly — certainly not as quickly as automation replaces jobs. There’s no Moore’s Law for labor.

And service jobs aren’t really an answer. Wages for service jobs are low because there’s excess supply in the labor market there — that excess supply is coming from all of the manufacturing workers that have, essentially, been replaced.

I don’t think it’s the end of the world, but it definitely deserves more of a response than simply dismissing the people raising those concerns as luddites.

A short read on this topic that’s neither dismissive nor neo-luddite: http://www.amazon.com/Race-Against-The-Machine-ebook/dp/B005WTR4ZI

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

I've had this conversations before

And there are some good TED lectures that actually cover the issue of robot uprisings.

A robot uprising comes in one of two forms:

~ A small bug, that is discovered and corrected before it becomes a problematically big bug, or

~ Willfully plated malicious code, in which case Ms. Scarlett killed Colonel Mustard in the Conservatory using the Robot.

These days, we still use slavery, we just keep our slaves in other nations where we don’t have to look at how bad we treat them. But whenever we have an abolitionist movement to free a workforce from abuses, we always have a surge in industrial automation.

A robot is nothing more than a versatile cotton gin.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Moore's Law In The Basement

Moore’s law is about to bump to a stop against the wall of atomic diameters. The best chip fabs are now down to nine nanometers, or ninety angstroms. Typical metal atom diameters are two to three angstroms. In addition, what we think of as a computer is a device which can trivially load a program and run it. The result is that you can buy a cheap, mass-produced computer, and use it for specialized purposes. Well naturally, this capability has some overhead. It is somewhat doubtful whether a computer will ever become more intelligent than a dog. Woof!

That said, we can discard the stuff about Super-intelligence. However, there are a lot of people who do work which, in its general complexity, would not challenge a suitably motivated rat. The problem is that a rat is already programmed to do rat things, not to do people things. Staying one jump ahead of a cat takes absolute precedence, obviously.

The ongoing effects of Moore’s Law will be at the bottom, not at the top. They will involve fairly simple devices which collect information on the spot, and act on it, rather than performing high-level cognitive tasks. The devices will act on what they know, rather than making complex inferences about what they do not know.

Railroading is probably one of the best working-class jobs there is, in the same league as policeman or fireman. A lot of railroaders are in “maintenance-of-way,” which is construction work. I should like to focus on the other branch, the people who run the trains. At the pinnacle, of course, is the Locomotive Engineer. His deputy is variously described as a Conductor or a Fireman (both historical anachronisms), but is actually a Brakeman/Switchman. His job is to walk along the length of the train when it is stopped (or nearly so), for a mile or more, connecting up air hoses, opening and closing air valves, setting various lever on the cars and cranking various wheels, and sometimes to walk in front of the train, setting up track switches. Apart from everything else, this is dangerous work. There is a European railroad joke that you can tell the experience of a brakeman by how many fingers he has, and there are cases of people getting impaled by railroad couplers, skewered like a butterfly on a pin.

Virtually all of this work is work which could be done by remote control, by devices similar to a garage-door opener. A railroad freight car costs about a hundred thousand dollars. All the electronics that car has, is a crude form of RFID, so that the car can be electronically identified. The culture of railroads is such that it is very difficult to insist that equipment be upgraded to a given standard. The kinds of upgrades which work are those which can be performed unilaterally. Subways are in a fairly high state of upgrade, because one entity, such as a transit authority, owns a five or ten mile line, and the cars which go back and forth on it. It is immaterial that a city might be served by as many as three or four transit authorities. In a freight railroad, however, a given train will commonly include cars belonging to everyone in the country who owns railroad cars.

When the train is rolling, the Brakeman/Switchman becomes the Locomotive Engineer’s apprentice, learning the fine art of driving a train. A traditional train is only very minimally under control. Braking is managed by a single air-hose, running for anything up to two miles. This hose supplies both power for the brakes and control, only it cannot do both at the same time. So it is possible to get into a catch-22 situation with the brakes. Supplying pressurized air to the air-hose supplies power to the brake system, but it also releases the brakes. Releasing the air pressure causes the brakes to apply, but it also starves the brake system of power. It takes perhaps a minute for the control signal to run the length of the train. Catch-22. There are electrically controlled brakes (ECP, or Electronically Controlled Pneumatic), in which there is a signal wire to direct application of the brakes without cutting off their power source. However, this has only proved economically practicable in groups of cars which stay more or less permanently coupled to each-other, eg coal trains. A coal train goes to a mine, every car in the train is loaded with coal, then it goes to an electric power plant, every car in the train is dumped onto the coal-pile, and then back to the same mine, and back to the same power plant again, just like a conveyor-belt. To reduce the possibility of failure, every six cars are commonly connected with fixed draw-bars instead of automatic couplers. The draw-bars are stronger, and less likely to break.
The other aspect of non-control is “slack action.” A train’s couplers stretch slightly under load, so that the train behaves somewhat like a child’s slinky-toy. Since the different cars are spread out over a mile or more, they may very well be on different sides of a hill, so that the brake setting which is right for one car is wrong for another. When the load shifts, say as cars come over the hilltop, the spring-energy can violently release itself. Between these two factors, the response to the Locomotive Engineer’s controls, the throttle, the engine-brake, and the train-brake, is often counter-intuitive. It’s not anything like as simple as the way an automobile behaves. The Locomotive Engineer can keep the train under control by virtue of at least ten years experience. To replace a Locomotive Engineer, one does not build one big artificial-intelligence robot. Instead, one provides each car with a computer, and each computer is provided with sensors to measure various relevant information, eg. speed and acceleration, the loads on the couplers, and the loads on the car trucks, plus, of course, means to communicate up and down the train. All of this enables each car’s brakes to be adjusted on a second-by-second basis, only partially on the basis of the command from up front, but much more on the basis of local measurements. Effectively, this is something like automobile anti-skid braking, adapted to the needs of a train.

For a system like this to work, there has to be some kind of means of automatically establishing communications and a power supply for each car. The Federal Railroad Administration is trying to promote a new kind of automatic coupler, with additional sockets for air hoses and electric wires. However, it might be more practical to provide each car with a wheel-mounted electric generator/compressor and wireless devices. These devices, and the conversion of all the cars’ mechanisms to run off them, would render the Switchman/Brakeman superfluous. At the same time, the Locomotive Engineer would be de-skilled. He might also be “remoted.” Video cameras can be put in all the right places, and their output streamed back to an office somewhere. If the video connection should be lost, the system would automatically apply the brakes, so remote-manned operation should be safe enough. If one compares it with the analogous task of train/track dispatching, there is good reason to believe that trains could be run at a distance of thousands of miles.

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