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Robot Recruiters?

January 20, 2011

Despite the lagging economy and a serious lack of jobs for PhDs, even in science, there's still a push to get more people into STEM fields, especially science and engineering. Arizona State University is highlighting their FIRST Lego League as a way to use robots to hook kids on engineering at an earlier age.
 
I think this is sort of misleading. 99.9% of engineers will not get to work on robots for a living, or not the kind of robots they think. Sure you can work on your own projects in your spare time, but there's no pre-requisite you be an engineer to do so. I mean, working on robots through my engineering curriculum certainly exposed me to it but there are clubs and internet tutorials and books for motivated folks who have an interest. That is if your day job doesn't kill all the curiosity and creativity that you had for side projects. Not that I'd know anything about that.
 
Clearly these kids are too young to have seen the Terminator films and know the dangers of building robots, so I guess before they can see an R rated movie is probably a good time to trick them into trusting the machines.
 
So I don't know, is recruiting more and more people into a shrinking field unethical? Just because we as a society need more scientists, engineers and innovators does not mean we should necessarily encourage that if we don't actually support it with government funding or K-12 education or investment incentives. Getting more kids into STEM is not by itself going to keep companies from shipping more jobs overseas, professional jobs included as India and China start to catch up with a plethora of qualified engineers.
 
When I worked on my robot project in school one of my group mates asked if I could help him find a job where I work as he was still trying to feel out where he wanted to go. At the time he was working in an on campus lab making small scale electromechanical assemblies with PID controls and really enjoyed that. I had to tell him the opportunity to do such things anywhere else were severely limited. Start up companies in the '90s might have risked one time robot builds for specific applications but in general companies tend to go for the sure thing. And there's innovation, but not in a ground up building your own robot kind of way.
 
So there's two things I don't like here. One, that we let people believe that "robots" are a good storefront window display for engineering. Two, that bringing people into an industry that can't necessarily support their steady employment is premature until we fix the institutional problems at the top.
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