NPR has a series called “This I Believe.” In it, people describe articles of their faith, things that inspire them, and experiences they’ve had that have lifted their spirits. It’s an entertaining show but, as a person without faith, it makes me feel somewhat left out. Why should the credulous have all the fun? Hence the new segment.
In this installment: Automation
When I lived in Chicago, I would go to the Museum of Science and Industry every week with my son. One of the exhibits we liked visiting was called the Toy Maker. It was a giant, automated machine that used robotics to make gyroscope toys; all you had to do was enter your specifications and you could watch the giant robot arms assemble your toy.
Or, that’s what I heard.
The problem with the Toy Maker was that it almost never worked. Week after week, month after month we would visit the exhibit and stare at the large “Out of Order” sign and wonder what it would be like if it was, you know, on. The machine sat there, mute, mocking us as we walked through it. “Oh, you’d like a toy gyroscope, would you?” it seemed to say, “Well, maybe I don’t feel like it! Why don’t you go back to the McDonald’s Happy Meal toy exhibit! Ahahahahaha!”
(Note: There really is a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy exhibit.)
Eventually, they did get it started and by “started,” I don’t mean “working.” It would only be on for a few hours before crashing to a halt. Then two technicians would spend a few more hours poking through the device, clearing jams, resetting software, and recalibrating instruments. Usually, the problem was an unassembled toy part getting stuck. Once I saw them pushing the toys down the assembly line with their fingers because the machine was refusing to move on.
I finally succumbed and let my son make a gyroscope toy of his own. We put in five dollars, picked a color, and entered my son’s name. Suddenly the Toy Maker sprung to life, dropping colored pieces into a tray, putting them together, using sound waves to weld the pieces into place, testing it for balance, and laser-etching my son’s name into the top before finally putting it into a box and dropping it down a slide to my son’s waiting hands. My son was aflutter with excitement when we took it home and tried it out. Moments later, he dropped it onto the floor from a whopping height of three feet and it immediately flew apart. When we bought another (yeah, I’m a pushover), my son found it would also break apart if dropped from only two feet. I refused to let him try from one foot.
After some thought, I realized the entire project was flawed from its conception. I mean, why build a multimillion dollar robotic construction device, train technicians, and pay them to work around the clock keeping it working? You’ve only proven that automation is slower, more expensive, and makes lower quality products.
Let me propose a new exhibit for the Museum of Science and Industry. I call it Roberta. If you visit the Roberta exhibit, you will find her sitting on a stool next to a pile of parts. When you give her $3, she’ll put all the parts together with a screwdriver on a table with you and write your name on top in permanent marker. The beauty of the Roberta exhibit is it’s cheaper, the toys are going to last longer, you can help make it yourself, and Roberta can answer any questions you want.
Yeah, I don’t expect them to get back to me any time soon.