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Companies hire record number of robots amid labor shortage

Diane Davis

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Asked his thoughts on raising the minimum wage, the former Carl’s Jr. CEO Andy Puzder once responded that there’s absolutely no downside to hiring robots. You can pay them a $0 an hour, and they’ll never complain, always attempt to upsell the customer, never take a vacation, can’t get injured on the job, and won’t file a sexual-harassment or race discrimination case against you, he said.

During a historic “Great Resignation“—where workers are fighting aggressively for higher pay and better working conditions—it sounds like Puzder’s questionable advice has found new resonance in America’s boardrooms. North American companies are buying robots in record numbers, according to data from the Association for Advancing Automation cited by Reuters. Since the start of 2021, orders have been placed for about 29,000—or nearly $1.5 billion worth, an almost 40% increase from the same period last year, according to the industry group. The second-biggest year in sales was back in 2017, when there was plenty of tech innovation but no pandemic roiling the economy.

The sudden interest is undoubtedly tied to AI’s work ethic and skills. In the past 20 months, factories across the country have ridden out all kinds of disruptions that, were the workforce 100% nonhuman, wouldn’t have slowed things down—by social distancing on the factory floor or staging worker walkouts, for instance. Lots of current human workers also quit during that same period, and companies are struggling to find replacements.

The result is they’ve likely been kicking around grass-is-greener scenarios where their factories and warehouses are run by a swarm of machines—though that’s assuming executives can get over the sticker shock (again: $1.5 billion for fewer than 30,000 new robo-workers, while the U.S.’s most recent jobs report shows 10.4 million open positions nationwide).

Automakers have for decades bought almost all of the robots, for obvious reasons. But Reuters also notes that for the first time in 2020, combined sales for other sectors leapfrogged the car industry’s, and that the gap widened even more in 2021. Auto manufacturers’ robot orders are up 20% this year (to 12,544 units), but orders placed by other kinds of companies grew by 53% (to 16,355 units). This means carmakers are still buying a record amount of robots! It’s just that suddenly everyone else is buying an even crazier number of them.


Technology & Innovation

Tackling long-haul diseases | MIT Technology Review

Diane Davis

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""

Tal, who has been obsessed with infectious disease since losing an uncle to HIV/AIDS and a cousin to meningococcal meningitis, wondered what this striking diversity could reveal about our immune response to infection. According to one hypothesis, the wide array of these receptors is the result of an evolutionary arms race between disease-causing microbes and the immune system. Think of the receptor as a lock, and the “Nothing to see here” message as a key. Pathogens might evolve to produce their own chemical mimics of this key, effectively hiding from the immune system in plain sight. In response, the human population has developed a wide range of locks to frustrate any given impostor key. 

Wanting to test this hypothesis, Tal found herself walking the halls of Stanford, asking colleagues, “Who’s got a cool bug?” Someone gave her Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Previous research from Tal’s collaborator Jenifer Coburn, a microbiologist now at the Medical College of Wisconsin, had established that Lyme bacteria sport a special protein crucial for establishing a lasting infection. Knock this protein out, and the immune system swiftly overwhelms the bugs. The big question, however, was what made this protein so essential. So Tal used what’s known as a high-affinity probe as bait—and caught the Borrelia’s mimic of our “Don’t eat me” signal binding to it. In other words, she confirmed that the bacteria’s sneakyprotein was, as predicted, a close match for a healthy cell’s signal.  

Sex differences in Lyme infection

Until then, Tal says, she had never given Lyme disease much thought. But the more she learned, the more disturbed she grew. Even after timely antibiotic treatment, roughly 10% of all Lyme patients go on to develop chronic symptoms that can include crushing pain, debilitating fatigue, and cognitive changes that make basic tasks a struggle.  

This confocal micrograph depicts Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which cause Lyme disease when transmitted to humans by ticks. These Borrelia were genetically engineered to produce a green fluorescent protein.

COURTESY OF THE TAL RESEARCH GROUP

Perhaps even more alarming than the disease has been the medical community’s response to it. “I realized that there’s this public health debacle around Lyme, and it’s, for lack of a better word, obscene,” Tal says. Chronic Lyme patients skew female, and for decades, clinicians have dismissed their symptoms as signs of mental illness. The medical establishment has “done nothing but call them crazy,” Tal says, “instead of admitting that they just don’t understand what’s going on.” 

Today, there is no objective way to diagnose chronic Lyme, and no medically accepted therapy. For some patients, lengthy treatments with high doses of antibiotics can ease symptoms, but these come with their own serious risks. (They can, for example, damage the microbiome, leading to significant negative effects on health.) And because the antibiotic used currently only prevents bacteria from replicating, Tal notes, it’s up to the immune system to actually kill off the invaders. If immune cells can’t tell friend from foe, the utility of antibiotics may be limited. 

Chronic Lyme patients skew female, and for decades, the medical establishment has “done nothing but call them crazy,” Tal says, “instead of admitting that they just don’t understand what’s going on.”

For Tal, these revelations were electrifying. She dove into the immunology of Lyme disease, focusing in particular on sex differences. In one mouse experiment, she discovered that Lyme bacteria “completely disfigured” the uterus. Yet after delving through decades of Lyme research, she could find only one other study that even documented uterine infection. 

This shortfall mirrors larger problems in medical research. “We’ve let men dictate the direction of research funding for so long,” Tal says. Traditionally, studies focused on male subjects, and a 1977 FDA policy barred women from participating in most clinical trials in the US in the wake of birth defects caused by thalidomide. It wasn’t until 1993 that federal law required studies to include women and minorities. This, coupled with other sex- and gender-based medical biases, means that many female-dominated diseases remain under-researched. “So much of this research is being done on males, male mice—male, male, male,” Tal says. “And I’m like, no.” 

Tal suspects that the sex disparities seen in chronic Lyme and other pathogen-­triggered chronic diseases might come down to the fact that men mount a more robust response to acute infection. This no-holds-barred approach is risky—“Your immune system has the power to kill you,” she notes—but it may mean that men, on average, can kill off more viruses or bacteria in the critical first week of infection. After that window closes, the immune system largely settles back down, Tal says. Pathogens that escaped the initial blitz could take up long-term residence in the body, potentially causing persistent symptoms. And women have a higher chance of chronic illness.

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Technology & Innovation

The Download: Alabama’s embryo ruling impact, and remote learning for pre-schoolers

Diane Davis

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An aerial view of the burnline at the edge of The Crosby.

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

The weird way Alabama’s embryo ruling takes on artificial wombs

A ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court last week that frozen embryos count as children is sending “shock waves” through the fertility industry and stoking fears that in vitro fertilization is getting swept up into the abortion debate.

The Alabama legal ruling is clearly animated by religion. But what hasn’t gotten much notice is the court’s specific argument that an embryo is a child “regardless of its location.” This could have implications for future technologies in development, such as artificial wombs or synthetic embryos made from stem cells. Read the full story. 

—Antonio Regalado

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things health and biotech. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

Remote learning can work for preschoolers

Educational interruptions due to the pandemic, climate disasters, and war have affected nearly every child on Earth since 2020. A record 43.3 million children have been driven from their homes by conflict and disasters, according to UNICEF—a number that doubled over the past decade. Despite that, less than 2% of humanitarian aid worldwide goes to supporting young kids’ care and education. 

That may be about to change, thanks to a program called Ahlan Simsin, a special version of Sesame Street that has been custom-made for Syrian refugee children. It’s the largest-ever humanitarian intervention intended for small children’s development, with remote learning a core part of it. And it’s already yielding promising early evidence that remote learning can help young children in crisis situations. Read the full story. 

—Anya Kamenetz 

This story is from the next issue of MIT technology Review, all about hidden worlds. It’s set to go live next Wednesday—subscribe now so you don’t miss out when it lands!

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The first privately-built spacecraft has touched down on the moon
The Odysseus lunar lander has already started to send back data, according to its developer, Intuitive Machines. (CNN
There are more private landers headed there too. (NYT $)

2 Five charts that show how Nvidia took over the world 
It added more than $276 billion in market value yesterday, more than any other company in a single day. (WSJ $)
Its chips underpin advanced AI systems, giving it a market share estimated at over 80%. (WSJ $)

3 Mothers are selling photos of their kids to pedophiles online
This is a very important, but also very disturbing, read. (NYT $)
Five crucial takeaways from the investigation. (NYT $)

4 What it’s like to cry while wearing an Apple Vision Pro 
Kinda lonely, from the sounds of it. (Wired $)
What would wearing the Vision Pro all day do to our brains? (Scientific American $)
+ These minuscule pixels are poised to take augmented reality by storm. (MIT technology Review)

5 Who actually wants an AI search engine?
It still looks a bit like a solution searching for a problem. (Fast Company)
+ Chrome has added an AI feature that helps you to write. (The Verge)
Chatbots could one day replace search engines. Here’s why that’s a terrible idea. (MIT technology Review)
+ AI-generated videos are here to awe and mislead. (Vox)

6 A GPT-4 developer tool can hack websites autonomously
Not good. (New Scientist $)
Three ways AI chatbots are a security disaster. (MIT technology Review)
AI could help defend against security threats too though, says Google CEO Sundar Pichai. (CNBC)

7 What it’s like to hang out with the 46-year-old ‘anti-aging’ millionaire 
At a rave, no less. (The Atlantic $)
Longevity enthusiasts want to create their own independent state. They’re eyeing Rhode Island. (MIT technology Review)

8 X is becoming a bit of a hellscape  
Especially for famous women, as Bobbi Althoff has unfortunately found in recent days. (WP $)
Three ways we can fight deepfake porn. (MIT technology Review)
X has been removing accounts and posts critical of the Indian government. (Reuters $)

9 Humane’s AI Pin has been delayed
The vibes are getting pretty inauspicious for this product, frankly. (The Verge)

10 A startup wants to turn the sugar we eat into fiber 
Pretty neat—if it works as promised. (Wired $)

Quote of the day

“The balance of power has shifted back to employers.”

—Laszlo Bock, an adviser at the venture capital firm General Catalyst, tells Wired why tech job interviews are becoming more and more onerous for applicants. 

The big story

The quest to build wildfire-resistant homes

An aerial view of the burnline at the edge of The Crosby.

DON BARTLETTI/LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES

April 2023

With each devastating wildfire in the US West, officials consider new methods or regulations that might save homes or lives the next time.

In the parts of California where the hillsides meet human development, and where the state has suffered recurring seasonal fire tragedies, that search for new means of survival has especially high stakes.

Many of these methods are low cost and low tech, but no less truly innovative. In fact, the hardest part to tackle may not be materials engineering, but social change. Read the full story.

—Susie Cagle

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction to brighten up your day. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ This ‘reverse packet ramen’ TikTok is mesmerizing.
+ These quotes have got me craving bubbles.
+ If I ever won the lottery, it’d become obvious pretty quickly. 
+ Here’s a fun challenge for you this weekend: try doing absolutely nothing.


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Technology & Innovation

Yes, remote learning can work for preschoolers

Diane Davis

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Mariam, one of the mothers in the camp, has two girls, five and four years old, and her greatest wish is that they get an education. She herself stopped her schooling at the sixth grade. “Reading and writing,” she said through an interpreter, “is the most important thing in life.”

A focus on resilience

Sesame Street premiered in the United States in 1969 with a social mission born out of the civil rights movement and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society: to level the playing field for poor kids by bringing early learning into the home for free. 

The show debuted its first foreign-­language co-productions in Brazil and Mexico just three years later; there have been a total of 42 international co-­productions over the years. A meta-analysis of studies with over 10,000 children in 15 countries found that these programs have had significant positive effects on children’s mastery of reading and basic math concepts, as well as their social-emotional skills and attitudes toward out-groups.  

An Arabic version of the show (Iftah Ya Simsim/Open Sesame, which many of today’s parents in the region grew up with) ran from 1979 to 1989. But Ahlan Simsim is the first production created deliberately for children affected by crisis and conflict, and that necessitated some special sensitivity.

The social-emotional curriculum for the show had to be designed from scratch for the cultural context and needs of these children, says Shanna Kohn, the director of international education at Sesame Workshop. “We went in with the idea of a show that focused on resilience—a beloved Western concept. And we brought that to this team of academics and Arab advisors, and there was a lot of skepticism. There isn’t even a clear Arabic translation,” says Kohn. 

So the team backed up and started with the basics. They had to figure out how to present relatable stories—about Jad leaving home and feeling different from his friends—without introducing situations or concepts that might be triggering for young viewers. 

Elmo with children in a classroom in Saida, Lebanon.

RYAN HEFFERNAN/SESAME WORKSHOP

“Boats are usually a go-to for preschool children,” says Scott Cameron, who has been with the company for 25 years. “We avoided things like that, for obvious reasons.” They also avoided loud noises, like thunderstorms. They skipped nutrition lessons, because kids who are barely getting enough to eat can’t use reminders about fruits and vegetables. 

Kids who are traumatized often respond with an outward numbness; the research team found that the children were using only two or three terms—happy, sad, angry—to describe their feelings. To help them process these feelings and frustrations, the show defines the Arabic words for nine emotions: caring, fear, frustration, nervousness, hope or determination, jealousy, loneliness, and sadness. Jad and Basma model emotional coping strategies: belly breathing, counting to five, “moving it out,” “drawing it out,” asking for help, and making a plan. 

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