The Diminishing Returns of Technology


Since sustainability is such a big part of architecture lately do you think having robots replacing people's jobs is sustainable?  While bellhop or luggage check is not a great career at least it is work and a paycheck.  

Tour The Futuristic New York Hotel Where A Robot Will Take Your Luggage


When I opened the article fade to blackoe had already posted a similar thought.  I decided to start a thread since the news articles do not seem to get as much discussion.

Jul 7, 11 12:26 pm

:) its an interesting topic

Jul 7, 11 12:32 pm

i've been thinking about this too.

Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy have taken opposite stances on the topic. What is to become of manual labor?

Jul 7, 11 12:36 pm

is it sustainable if it's locally sourced by robots?

Jul 7, 11 12:47 pm

all depends on if the robots are powered by renewable energy, and are manufactured with less environmental impact then the 10k diapers that a human child uses.


Jul 7, 11 12:53 pm

robots do all the work => everyone's needs will be met => no need for jobs, paychecks or money! Everything will be free and I will have the convertible I deserve.

Jul 7, 11 1:21 pm

I think a rapid protoyping 3d printer like say, a reprap, is far more eco-efficient in a quantitative sense that having some huge manufacturing stream where I would have to order 10,000 of something just to get it made.

To me the robot taking your luggage is of little concern. I see the place where robotics and architecture will cross paths is through soft systems and intelligent materiality...robot bachelors and the like seems more akin to a 1950's version of a technological future. I in turn see one where the technology becomes less and less mechanical and overt.


Jul 7, 11 1:51 pm

It's a great novelty!  However, I doubt we'd be seeing a bunch of robot bellhops anytime soon - especially at higher-end hotels, where a lot of the extra value is in the quality of service (which involves a fair amount of human interaction).

Currently, robots are best at making complicated processes more efficient (and for being novel in a sci-fi way).  For processes that involve innovative thinking or a 'human' touch, not so much.

Jul 7, 11 2:01 pm

whats new york got on japan?

shes kinda hot

Jul 7, 11 2:39 pm

@fade to blackoe

sooo...why is it necessary to make a robot resemble a human...? Seems like a waste of money/time. 

Jul 7, 11 2:55 pm


The local grocery store had their registers replaced with automated kiosks the other day. i dont know if anyone got fired, but now Im beginning to think of the supermarket as more of a cyborg.There is 1 register with a person, 1 person managing the kiosks and the rest are scattered about the store. But ALL of my interaction has been with food and these machines every time I go.

I think its worthy speculation to further unite with technology. People trying to be machines or machines trying to be people. To me, the area where they can biologically unite is the scariest and most interesting. And there are attempts at this, its not science fiction at all. I dont really care about the "why" in that regard.

Jul 7, 11 3:30 pm

soft systems, cyborgs.. i think some of us are reading the same books on these subjects

Jul 7, 11 3:45 pm

Until they can make a dumpster diving robot, my calling in life is safe. 

Jul 7, 11 3:51 pm

robots do all the work => everyone's needs will be met => no need for jobs, paychecks or money!


Everything will be free and I will have the convertible I deserve.

Not in our capitalist system.  You will be without a means to support yourself and money will be in the hands of an elite few.

The local grocery store had their registers replaced with automated kiosks the other day. i dont know if anyone got fired...

Again most jobs in a grocery store aren't great, but it is a paycheck.  That is one less person to buy a breakfast sandwich in the morning.  Eventually the coffee shop you might have designed a new store for will not be expanding.  I can't explain it statistically, but I firmly believe we are racing down the wrong path.  Disposable income is drying up and automation taking away jobs is part of the problem.


Jul 7, 11 7:48 pm


<p>You think a robot would accept a job working 60 hours a week for 30K? I think not sir!

Jul 7, 11 8:09 pm
i r giv up

OP: Ridiculous. Go read about innovation and quality of life. As in, there was a beautiful piece in the WSJ slamming Obama over his stupid ATM comment a few weeks back.

Think of the internet. The thing that replaced countless librarians in the last 10 years. I wonder how many more tuition spikes would have resulted from my old alma matter having to keep enough librarians on staff to serve 4,000 undergrads with zero access to digital data. Efficient technology forces the redistribution of wealth by lowering production costs and passing on savings to consumers (competitive environments are competitive) (which is equated to a higher quality of life). Economics. Take a course. Or read a book. Then talk.

Jul 7, 11 8:54 pm

@ Orphan
Peter Testa's at it. I cant imagine showing that project to people on a job site, and even in that project there is still a person running the show.

I fear robots were just the beginning, thanks to microtechnologies, soon we will be emailing materials...and someday ourselves, uniting us further with machinery

Jul 7, 11 9:18 pm
le bossman

humans aren't necessarily a sustainable force of labor, given the amount of food and water they consume, and the amount of natural resources increasingly required to survive in the contempory world, especially in the west.  they also emit methane. 

Jul 7, 11 9:32 pm

so i hear. 

what do we have in these videos? i like calculating the random part in rational tangling. fascinating robotics and structural design all in real time..(?) 

but, when it comes to making object from the video itself with music and dancing etc.., they are unbearable.. as if they are 'discovery moment' ads. as if they are targeting disciples. 

"Peter Testa's at it. I cant imagine showing that project to people on a job site, and even in that project there is still a person running the show."

what do you mean by that? 

Jul 7, 11 10:01 pm

i was trying to imagine construction workers seeing themselves replaced by machines. But even if they were, it wouldnt be total replacement, somebody still has to babysit the robots. It still becomes US vs THEM

What kinds of robots do things that humans can't? that does sound like a missed opportunity for the sci-arc robot house. i had to mute the video at the end especially, those sounds..

Jul 7, 11 10:39 pm

i don't think a humanoid will be taking your luggage anytime soon, or your job.  but ubiquitous sensing and decision-making intelligence with some limited actuation may be near.  robotics?  rooms that understand the ambiance you desire, chairs that learn what makes you comfortable or have good posture and auto-adjust, beds that help you sit up or lie down or roll over when sick or infirm, facade features that self-reconfigure to minimize wind load or optimize solar shading. 

for this to happen, imo, one very important change needs to be made to the architectural design and construction processes --- "smart" interiors or exterior components must be fabricated as full-scale plug and play elements so that they can be built in factories where the incorporation of such sensing, intelligence and actuation can be made efficient, and structures have to be designed to accept such plug and play modules.

making architecture-scale robotics with integrated sensor networks, low-level AI, and actuated components all in situ would be cost prohibitive and the quality would suffer

as a model for how such construction might take place, look at how boeing is shifting its design and production processes for the dreamliner --- this sort of black box design and fabrication method may be the direction we have to head to make integration of these technologies into architecture viable

Jul 7, 11 10:51 pm

im really interested in robots that do things people can do. Technology can bring a better quality of life

Between 1980 and 1995 Europe protected 12 million govt jobs and in the process lost 5 million.

The U.S., fostering economic flux, saw 44 million jobs from the private sector disappear, but 73 million new jobs were created.

Either way you are in flux


Jul 7, 11 11:00 pm

i would say the trouble with robots, though, is that while they can do repetitive things very well and can out-perform us when they understand conditions, they still do not understand conditions very well

for instance, let's say you have a robotic bellhop carrying your luggage and a little girl being dragged by her dog cuts across its path very closely --- it is very likely that the sort of instantaneous reasoning, the immediate halting, the dynamic balancing of the luggage as it swings, these emergency response activities that the bellhop would make effortlessly and instinctively would be nearly impossible for the robot to perform at all, and certainly not in a safe way --- all of the other duties the bellhop performs, such as adding to ambiance, offering information, observing issues, would be poorly performed by the robotic bellhop, if at all

a better use of robots is for them to rely on our very fast situational processing of the environment and to perform in a support role for us --- you may look at parasuraman and writings in neuroergonomics for examples of robots that offer supplemental support to humans, picking up effort as the human fatigues, but relying on the human's judgment and vigilance. 

robots might be good at repetitive welding, but they are not yet good when each interaction is unique and the appropriate response is unique and nuanced

Jul 7, 11 11:07 pm

Yeah, i really think the futuristic bellhop could be a person with enhanced biomechanical features, before they are ever a full robot.

otherwise we're going to be dealing with this guy:

Jul 7, 11 11:16 pm

Just to point out and clarify a few things from the earlier comments about the robot house – the lab at sci-arc was initiated with the intent of exploring manufacturing techniques that are sustainable (free form, additive fabrication), mostly focusing on composite material systems.  We have all seen robots on the assembly line, or doing complex milling operations, etc……At Sci-Arc, the exciting part is that there are six, which are smaller and unique in their particular movement….The robot house is taking on collaborative robotics, which is not an easy task to say the least - the dancing is not just dancing but a computational model that allows for multiple robots to communicate, we are just having a little fun ;)…..Having worked with the bots, I for one admit that not every material or fabrication technique is complementary to this set up….

But there are definitely potentials – which you might find hints of in the student videos (which were produced before the robots were actually installed and were instrumental in making this effort happen)…..Another important aspect is the idea of new modes of representation and the idea of ‘real/fake’…..Which incorporates a composite of digital/real footage as a speculative tool for design.  These simulations and projections are important in not being totally constrained by a fabrication tool…We see the robots as not being purely used as a fabrication tool, but a new tool for design.  If we wanted to make a complex part of geometry, there are many ways to do this that are much more effective at the moment….

I hope you will find that the robot house will not be a ‘missed opportunity’ – for starters it has just opened and things are still so new, I don’t see how it was already missed!  And plus, it shouldn’t be us vs. them, robots are fun!

Jul 7, 11 11:49 pm

If this thread gets archived (or archinect lasts forever, as it should), you bet your ass robots will be reading this. And they will be coming for you. Or your offspring. 

Better renounce now for you know not know what foolish things you are saying!

All hail the cloud! And the day it became self aware. 

Jul 8, 11 12:57 am

Robots currently are less expensive than skilled workers. But robots are still loads more expensive than minimum wage workers and probably will be for a very long time. Although there's been a uptick in the manufacturing market, the demand for robotics is actually decreasing in America if you look at it from the perspective of an account register.

Two reasons:

Without a strong manufacturing base, there really is no need for more robotics as you're really just shaving off a few cents per dollar on money saved. If you're not operating a robot 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year with steady upkeep, the cost of them is enormous and the benefit is very little. Most robots are inflexible compared to the casual employee who can easily change jobs — a robot built for milling can't instantly transform into a robot that makes cardboard boxes.

And this reason relates to the first— market tastes are changing. People will always pay a premium for handmade and handcrafted goods made in small batches. These facilities are workshops (1 person or team takes one project from start to finish) and not assembly lines (dozens to hundreds of people doing the same repetitive task at a single point along a linear workflow). There really is no significant way mechanize this past what is currently available.


Jul 8, 11 12:58 am

i didn't post those pictures to particularly discuss sci arc and its robotics program/faculty.

frankly, for me it is not about accepting robots or not, either. clearly we will see more and more robotics in every aspect of our lives and in the future.  

i am not so satisfied a robot answering my calls and after considerable amount time pushing stars and entering codes/numbers, my problem is still not getting a solution. i don't like with robots making everything perfect on a given set of instructions and controls. the ecology of robotics is still not written in other than science fictional takes or robot ads championing the automation of production, manual labor, precision driven corporate models and service providing for profit. it is really different than just mechanical reproduction and now it is a social science as well.

i wonder if the robots are programmed by a fair representation of all parts of the society? 

Jul 8, 11 1:02 am

"i wonder if the robots are programmed by a fair representation of all parts of the society? "

you might like:


Communications of the ACM, September 1987 Volume 30 Number 9

it is not about robotics per se, but it addresses the complexities of designing and programming an information kiosk to be used by people from many different cultures, and some of the testing they did to understand those issues.

as far as, "the ecology of robotics," what about looking at Weiser and John Seely-Brown's writings, particularly on ubiquitous computing and calm technology:

Mark Weiser. The computer for the 21st century. Scientific American, 265(3):94--104, September 1991.
Mark Weiser. Hot topic: Ubiquitous computing. IEEE Computer, pages 71--72, October 1993.
Mark Weiser. Some computer science issues in ubiquitous computing. CACM, 36(7):74--83, July 1993. In Special Issue, Computer-Augmented Environments.
Mark Weiser. The world is not a desktop. Interactions, pages 7--8, January 1994.

Jul 8, 11 1:27 am

jmanganelli, thanks again.

here is a link to The Computer for the 21st Century. also maybe i am going ahead of the question but often the 21 st century is usually depicted after a professional european descent citizen. that, directly relates to "representation' i am wanting to talk about. it is certainly nice to wake up to smell of the coffee and smell of roses in front of the window from where one can see the beautiful silicon valley from large architect designed and sparsely custom furnished all white minimal living room... how is that life granted and regulated?

this seemingly innocent narrative alarms me;

When almost every object either contains a computer or can have a tab attached to it, obtaining information will be trivial: "Who made that dress? Are there any more in the store? What was the name of the designer of that suit I liked last week?" The computing environment knows the suit you looked at for a long time last week because it knows both of your locations, and, it can retroactively find the designer's name even if it did not interest you at the time.

Sociologically, ubiquitous computing may mean the decline of the computer addict. In the 1910's and 1920's many people "hacked" on crystal sets to take advantage of the new high tech world of radio. Now crystal-and-cat's whisker receivers are rare, because radios are ubiquitous. In addition, embodied virtuality will bring computers to the presidents of industries and countries for nearly the first time. Computer access will penetrate all groups in society.

this designer dress is a concern of minuscule percent of world's population. the ubiquitous penetration of computer access is not the question here but who will  control and harvest its financial properties. no offense to mark weiser but the above particular optimism, if at all,  has its embedded and assumed beneficiaries as well.

Jul 8, 11 2:19 am

i'm sorry for being lazy and not reading every post....  But has anyone else noticed we have gotten so use to things being mass produced and sold cheap that when we come across something crafted or pure, that we are shocked by how expensive it is.  I was thinking about this when I was at a farm store paying $5.00 for a qrt of strawberries and i know that i could get twice as many at the grocery store for $2.50.  It made me think of my grandparents who always talked about buying a bushel of apples for 25 cents, now an organic bushel of apples is $25. Somehow having cheap, genetically altered, produce seams worse than cheap organic produce.  I think technology lures us into thinking that it is new and better and cheaper and will make your life soooo much better, but then a generation or two removed, we are looking to get life back to how it was.  There has to be a responsible and balanced way of using technology to improve productivity and quality of life, not just profit margins. 

Jul 8, 11 1:06 pm

Efficient technology forces the redistribution of wealth by lowering production costs and passing on savings to consumers


You are close.  I think you meant to say passes profits up to shareholders...

I have no problem with some people having more than others, but the crumbling of the middle class is destroying this country.  What if this level of unemployment is the new normal?




Jul 8, 11 2:32 pm

I have one of those robot vacuums. Couldn't live without it.

Jul 8, 11 4:19 pm
i r giv up


That's only the case in industries with heavy monopolies and sparse competition (and when that's the case, you should be screaming at the government and not at tech). Any technology that gives you a monetary edge in production gives you an edge when setting prices in a competitive manner. Lower prices for consumers as various companies compete for their business... benefit consumers.

Jul 9, 11 9:45 am

So we need to yell at the gov't so that they can yell at companies that make technologies which take up human jobs?

You either lose jobs and pay less (with better technologies) or keep jobs and pay more?
It sounds like the only winner in that situation is people that like to update technology all the time

Jul 9, 11 10:24 am

im all for that btw

Jul 9, 11 10:31 am


Jul 9, 11 12:36 pm

Somebody has to make the robots ..dont they?!?!

Unless of course we get our robots to make robots ...then we're screwed

Jul 9, 11 12:57 pm

@barry lehrman,

10,000 diapers?!? holy sh*t man! we have 18 fuzzibunz that have been great for nearly 10 out of 11 months... and the various disposables we used til rugrat was about 1 month, plus various trips where we couldn't take re-usables. at most 1/10th that!

Jul 12, 11 2:06 am

The workers responsible for building Apple products, among products for many other large tech companies, will soon be replaced with robots

Aug 1, 11 11:36 am

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