A Robot Took My Job!

article4_187027727By Craig Harwood.

Let’s be honest here, technology is evolving so fast that by the time you have finished reading this magazine, Apple has probably bought out its next ‘more advanced’ product and the speed of computing probably would have doubled. As unpredictable as the future always is, one thing is certain, technology is advancing quickly, very quickly.

So what is the likelihood of our industry being totally automated and the human element relegated to playing PlayStation and watching TV at home while robots perform our jobs? In order to put any logic to this future universe, one has to look at what tasks the security professional performs now and how they achieve the outcomes required, and then compare these to the technology available now and what is likely in the near future.

Instead of boring you with a long list of functions or a job description of today’s security professional, let’s look at a few broad functions:

  • Patrolling or moving around terrain of all descriptions in different weather and light conditions.
  • Interacting with people and understanding their needs and providing risk mitigation or relevant outcomes.
  • Performing checking and assessment tasks.
  • Recording and then reporting incidents or emergencies to relevant stakeholders or support agencies to assist or resolve issues.
  • Managing emergencies and providing immediate rectification or evacuation.
  • Helping people in need of assistance – e.g. medical needs, directions.
  • Identifying potential future incidents, problems or dangers in a logical, professional manner within a real world deliverable risk management framework.
  • Operating usually for eight to 12 hours with a couple of breaks for sustenance and comfort stops.

In reality, the security professional performs the above functions in two main ways:

  1. Follows a known procedure in a flexible or inflexible sequence dependant on the nature of the task and considering other impacting factors.
  2. Interprets a situation by using communication, visual, auditory or other queues as well as intuition and experience to understand the nature of the event, its risks and potential response options before them. The security professional then formulates an action or response on an appropriate legal, ethical and financially viable base (or discounting one or more of the above dependant on impacting factors, severity or time restrictions).

Ok, that does not sound complicated, computers and technology could easily replicate all the above and do it faster and better, right?

Well, it turns out we are pretty amazing creatures. You could debate this looking at some of the issues the security professional confronts daily!). Let’s break down some of the above to understand where technology is or will be.

Following Procedures
This one should be a cinch for our robot replacement right now. A procedure is simply a set of steps in a logical order that can be accessed in sequence or, as required, that fits neatly into how computers work and access data. No problem at all for even a basic computer robot brain to store thousands of procedures and access them under relevant subject headings right? However, this is only part of how our brains function, we just do not access data in pre-arranged chunks. Our brain includes about one billion neurons and performs some 225,000,000,000,000,000 (225 million billion) interactions between cell types, neurotransmitters, etc. The brain also has approximately one trillion glial cells which may or may not be important for neural information processing. All this amounts to a very, very complex organ with amazing capacity of storage and recall.

It has been estimated that if your brain worked like a digital recorder, you could hold about 2.5 petabytes of information – that is the equivalent of three million hours of TV shows. To put that in perspective, that would take you 300 years of continuous viewing to watch it all. But even that amazing figure is an estimation.

Today’s largest computers contain a 120 petabyte ‘drive’ so the computer has about 50 times the estimated ‘storage’ capacity of the human brain. However, that is where the computer robot ‘brain’ advantage ends.

The human brain accesses and stores information in different ways to the way our computers store and access data. For example, the human brain uses content addressable memory which is accessed through spreading activation to memories and information related to the subject. A computer accesses information by polling its precise memory address. The subtle difference probably comes down to one word: intuition. The way our brain links images, smells and times (among other elements) gives us a huge advantage yet to be replicated by current computer technology.

The human brain weights about 1,300 grams and is the size of a small grapefruit and fits in your head. It is also powered by our human body using about 20 watts of power, (the same amount to run a light globe). The largest computers consume huge amounts of energy. Estimates suggest up to 9.9 million watts – that is enough energy to power 10,000 homes! These super computers also take up a lot of space in purpose-built facilities with lots of supporting infrastructure. The super computer also cost billions of dollars to construct and maintain, in the case of IBM’s sage computer, built in 1957, it cost 67 billion dollars to construct and took up over 20 acres of space! Not to mention the huge numbers of technicians and scientists used to construct and constantly maintain these amazing machines.

In comparison, the human brain has been around for thousands of years, can be constructed by unskilled labour in about 9 months 3 seconds, and is self-maintained! Basically, every person reading this still has the most advanced and powerful computer on the planet in their head! So, near-future robots with the same cognitive and reasoning capability as the human brain is still not on the horizon of the foreseeable future.

The Robot
We have all seen robots take human jobs in our lifetime. For example, robots in repetitive construction tasks can perform the job more efficiently and accurately for longer periods of time. Robots that can perform set tasks in hostile or dangerous environments, like the bottom of the sea or in space, are already in operation. But when we start asking robots to move around in the real world and interact with that world we start to see current technology limitations. The 3D landscapes that humans traverse and interact with are quiet complex – e.g. the different constructions, lighting conditions, access routes, stairs, doors, lifts, travelators, etc. All of these elements pose some interesting problems for a robot.

At present, we are starting to see ‘Dalek-type’ robots performing very basic patrol and help desk type functions in the security industry but we still see the same problems start to emerge as we do in computer technology when we try to develop the technology to replicate human capability. Power consumption and cost always rear their ugly heads at this point in the debate. Stan Lee solved his Iron Man power issue with the Arc Reactor, a fiction power source designed to power Iron Man’s suit. Currently battery technology and power sources cannot replicate our human power consumption to ability ratio. Asimo (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility) developed at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars by Honda, can perform a variety of human-like tasks but it only has an operating time of one hour. This hardly meets our eight to 12 hour human shift capabilities, or gives efficiency gains in deploying a robot.

Whilst autonomous movement and interaction within our world will become commonplace for our vehicles in the next decade, and no doubt this technology will flow into robot capability, the main stumbling block will always be cost. In order for our jobs to be really under threat from robots, the robot has to be at a better price point than the current spend on humans within a given role or location. Ultimately, that means the robot has to be able to perform the functions of more than one human to a more accurate and more efficient price point. Technology is far from solving the cognitive and movement capabilities of humans at a better price point. That said, intuitive camera technology with analytics and facial recognition will, and already has, start to enhance the security professional’s capabilities. This enhancement of our efficiency will ultimately start to replace some security functions. For example, if software can scan, identify issues and communicate to human resource to respond to a given location within a facility, the role of a control room operator is no longer required. However, this is still a number of years off.

The sad, but saving grace, for us humans is we can be produced by unskilled labour in large numbers and are cheap to run. Until robots can replicate these key business fundamentals, our jobs are safe.


A former member of the Victorian Police Special Operations Group, Craig is the original founder and currently a joint Managing Director of Securecorp, one of Australia’s largest privately owned integrated services companies providing services in the areas of security, alarm monitoring, cleaning and security electronics.




%d bloggers like this: