Penn State Smeal’s Jordan authors book on robots

October 26, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — “Robots,” a newly released book by John Jordan, Penn State Smeal College of Business Clinical Professor of Supply Chain and Information Systems, explores the many facets of robots, from prehistory, to treatment in popular media, to their place in technology and society.

As Jordan details in his book, robots aren’t just the technical, task-driven machines you see on automobile assembly lines. They come in many forms and touch nearly every segment of society in one way or another.

In “Robots,” Jordan views robots and robotics from multiple perspectives, giving the reader a 360-degree view of the topic.

Jordan joined Smeal in 2005. Prior to that he was a principal in the Office of the CTO at Capgemini and principal in the Center for Business Innovation at EY. He holds bachelor’s degrees in political science and history from Duke, a master’s in ethics from Yale, and a Ph.D. from Michigan.

He recently shared his perspectives on several facets of the subject of the book.

What influenced you to write about this particular subject?

In 2011 I was at Willow Garage, a robot start-up in Palo Alto, as a guest of one of the members of the Center for Digital Transformation (that was the research center I ran from 2005 to 2009). The alumni of the group continued to meet after the center closed, and on our field trip I saw this 400-plus-pound humanoid robot and knew immediately that robotics was the next wave of computing.

Take a look:

Is there a natural connection between robots and certain facets of supply chains?

It depends so much on what definition of robot you use; there’s no agreement on anything precise. Is an ATM machine, airport check-in kiosk, or self-checkout lane at Home Depot a robot? Some say yes, some say no, but all of those change supply (or at least service) chains. GM has been using assembly line robots for about 50 years now, but those aren’t autonomous, so they don’t qualify as robots according to some roboticists. Amazon has a division making warehouse robots, and you may have seen an Amazon delivery drone demo on "60 Minutes." Long answer short, depending on how you define supply chains, and depending on how you define robots, there are many areas of overlap.

Does the research you conducted for the book foretell a future of robots influencing business, the public and individuals equally, or will one sector benefit the most?

If Nissan uses robots to build cars in Japan but not in India because of lower labor costs there, that affects businesses, companies and even national policy. If Uber uses self-driving cars to replace drivers (those vehicles are currently being pilot-tested in Pittsburgh), it affects taxi drivers, taxi riders, unemployment and labor law issues, parking-lot owners, taxation authorities, and so on. In every example I studied, there were far-reaching unintended consequences of robotic technologies. I can’t begin to pick ultimate winners or losers this early.

Most people think that current robots are as smart as the people who program them. What influence will artificial intelligence have on future robots?

The intersection of AI and robots is of huge importance. Let’s start with data collection: the sensors on a GE jet engine, or a Google self-driving car, or a Google Glass headset (all of which touch on robotics even if they aren’t robots in an obvious way) – all of these generate a massive amount of information about the physical world as well as the device’s place in it. We will see machine learning and other AI technologies used to manage and digest these data troves.

Then we get to navigation, whether of an autonomous vehicle, an AI toy race car, or a Roomba. Again, environmental interpretation and path-planning are driven by various flavors of AI. Finally, think of the interface between a robot and the people around it: Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and Google Assistant are early attempts at managing interactions between computational cognition and the human kind. To put it in the simplest terms, without AI, there are no robots of any consequence.

What question haven’t I asked that you would like to answer?

Much of the work on the book involved discovering the role of science fiction in shaping people’s expectations and attitudes. In no other technology has fiction and the movies conditioned mass audiences before the technologies actually existed: Think about television, mainframe computing, air travel, even the car. In no case were millions of people expecting performance from those technologies before the key inventions happened, but today even children have expectations of what robots should be able to do.

Just getting an autonomous robot to open a door, climb three steps, or get into an elevator is terrifically complicated, yet expectations have been set by the Terminator and C-3PO, so reality can be underwhelming to an outsider. A lot of the research was devoted to sorting out that part of the story.

Paperback and ebook copies of “Robots” are available online from MIT Press at

  • Cover of book authored by John Jordan
    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated December 12, 2016