DIEGO — Thirty of the world’s top scientists are
scheduled to meet at the University of California at San
Diego in February to discuss the toughest challenges in
robotics and automation, including how to make
driverless cars safe for a mass audience.
experts are being brought together by Henrik
Christensen, the prominent Georgia Tech engineer who was
hired in July to run UC San Diego’s young Contextual
said at the time, "I want to build a research
institute that, ideally, will be in the top five in the
world five years from now. Why not see if we can make
San Diego ‘Robot Valley.’"
February forum is being eyed as a step toward raising
the university’s visibility in robotics, a field
defined by grand advances and embarrassing setbacks.
Christensen recently sat down with The San Diego
Union-Tribune to talk about what’s likely to happen in
the near term. The following is an edited version of
Automation and robotics are advancing quickly. What
impact will this have on employment in the United
We see two trends. We will use robots and automation to
bring manufacturing jobs back from overseas, primarily
from Southeast Asia. At the same time, we will see some
jobs get displaced by automation. There will be fully
automated, driverless transportation in this country by
2020, and that will eliminate some jobs now held by
workers like truck drivers and taxi drivers.
Will there be a net increase or decrease in jobs?
To be honest with you, we don’t know. There was a
recent study on this by the National Academies, but
there wasn’t enough good data to make it clear what
the outcome will be. We do see a lot of change
occurring. Amazon is printing books at its local
distribution centers, then sending them on to customers.
They print the book, put a cover on it and off it goes.
That cuts down on transportation jobs and costs.
Are you saying that Amazon is just beginning to do this?
It’s happening today. This program has been in
existence for more than a year. The last estimate I
heard was that 65 percent of the books Amazon delivers
are printed in its local distribution centers. Amazon
wants to do (widespread) deliveries of groceries, too.
But doesn’t this assume that the technology of
driverless vehicles is much further along than it
My own prediction is that kids born today will never get
to drive a car. Autonomous, driverless cars are 10, 15
years out. All the automotive companies — Daimler, GM,
Ford — are saying that within five years they will
have autonomous, driverless cars on the road.
We’re both baby boomers. We’ve driven all of our
lives. How do you feel about kids never having this
I love to drive my car, but it’s a question of how
much time people waste sitting in traffic and not doing
something else. The average person in San Diego probably
spends an hour commuting every day. If they could become
more productive, that would be good.
autonomous, driverless cars, we can put twice as many
vehicles on the road as we have today, and do it without
improving the infrastructure.
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Does that mean we’ll need fewer parking garages?
There would be no need to have parking garages in
downtown San Diego. In theory, you’d get out of the
car and say, ‘Pick me up at 4 p.m.’ Long-term — we’re
talking 20 years into the future — you’re not even
going to own a car. A car becomes a service.
Who is going to orchestrate all of this movement to make
sure the interstate isn’t some black hole of traffic
at 5 p.m. each day?
We have to think of this in terms of how can we realize
mass transportation. I would like to have trucks that
don’t drive during rush hour. I’d like McDonald’s
and others to make deliveries outside of rush hour.
Do you have one central agency orchestrating the
movement of these vehicles?
My expectation is that the city of San Diego would have
taxes based on when you use the transportation system.
So if you want to make deliveries at 8 a.m., when
everyone else is on the road, it would be more expensive
to use the freeway.
will see significant displacement of taxi drivers, truck
drivers, all of these transportation functions. So the
question is: What will they do? The unskilled laborers
are the ones who are in danger. They have jobs that can
easily be done by robots. The question is, "Can we
retrain those people fast enough for the new jobs that
will be created in areas like manufacturing?"
In the U.S., we currently have about 6 million unfilled
jobs. Many of those positions could be filled if people
had the right skills. In many cases, people have the
opportunity to get those skills but don’t go ahead and
do it. So …
California is in a relatively good position on this. But
I used to live in Georgia, where 34 percent of the
population never finishes high school. They’re not
going to be able to get retrained to do these new jobs.
That’s why it’s very important that we make sure
that people’s education is high enough that they can
get retrained later.
Elon Musk, the president of SpaceX and Tesla, said it
may be necessary for the U.S. to have a universal basic
income. Should the government pay a certain amount of
money to unemployed workers?
I think what they’re saying is that whether you have a
job or you don’t have a job, you have a minimum basic
income that’s guaranteed for life. We are starting to
see trends like this. In Sweden, they recently reduced
the number of work hours per week from 40 to 30, and
they still have seven weeks of vacation every year. That
is going toward a socialistic model where you guarantee
a basic level of income.
think that in the U.S., that would be a really hard
thing (for lawmakers to approve). It would lead to
significantly higher taxes, it would require a departure
from the current political system.
Do you see any downside to the evolution of robots? Last
year, Google was awarded a patent that involves
customizing the personality of robots. There seems to be
some disturbing privacy issues there. Or am I reading
too much into it?
I think we’re going to see robots that are going to
learn from you. They’re going to use potentially all
of the data that’s available about you.
would like to build a robot that would help (elderly
people) stay in their house another five years. The cost
of going to a managed-care facility is somewhere around
$80,000 a year. If you could stay in your home, the cost
would only be about $20,000.
we build the robot, we would want it to know: What is
your personality? When do you get up in the morning?
When do you go to bed? Are you a tennis person? A TV
person? I think people would want the robot to be highly
customized to them.
real question is, who else has access to that data? Is
it going to be companies like Facebook, Google and
Apple? Are we confident that they are not going to abuse
that information to try to sell you information, or sell
it to somebody else?
You said we have to show that robots can’t be hacked.
We haven’t shown that ability in current society, so
is this a solvable problem?
I think we have been very ignorant about privacy. But we’re
getting to a point right where we are starting to pay
Was 2016 a tipping point year in hacking? Major websites
were knocked offline. The Democratic National Committee
was hacked. Everywhere we turn, we hear a story about
hacking. Has the issue really begun to sink in for the
I don’t think we’re there yet. I think all of
intellectuals are worried about it. But if you go and
talk to everyday people, it’s not such a big deal.
Unfortunately, I think things have to get a lot worse
before they get better.
has to impact you or a larger number of people who say,
"Uh-oh, they’ve gotten into my bank
account." Or a big portion of the grid goes down
and the East Coast is suddenly without electricity for a
couple of days. People will go, "Wow, now this has
the hack hits their personal lives, people will say we
need to stop it. But it’s not going to be an easy
thing to fix.