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A Human Task Not Easily Automated

Updated on December 10, 2019
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Before retiring, Jack worked at IBM for over 28 years. His articles have over 120,000 views.


Recent advancements in AI and robotics has lead many to believe that most human jobs will be extinct. Especially those that are repetitive in nature or those that do not require creativity.

I am of the opinion that these projections are exaggerated. Even some common mundane tasks are not easily replaceable. One example is the conductor on a commuter rail.

- Dec. 2019

The Problem at Hand

One of the problem that a conductor deals with is collecting fees. That is what pays for the train services. The problem is not a simple one. You have a local train that makes multiple stops along a track. You have customers that can board and debark at various stations randomly. The fee is based on the length of their rides.

Currently, a customer buys a ticket at a kiosk before boarding and it specifies the final destination and the cost. Alternatively, he can board and pay on board when a conductor walks by. There is a premium fee when he does the later.

From a conductor point of view, his task is to make sure everyone on board paid for the service. He walks the length of the train collecting tickets or collect fees. He may not have time to walk the whole length of the train between stops. His job is one of compromise. He will cover a section of the train between each stop. He will tag the seats that are occupied. When a new person come onboard, he would know who is a new arrival. He would make a final walk before the last stop and catch anyone who has not paid.

There is a few wrinkles. It is possible for someone to board at one stop and gets off at another stop without having to pay. The conductor may not have reached his car as yet. Another problem may arise when a passenger decided to move seats after he has paid. This mess up the tagging process that is in place by the conductor.

An Ideal Solution

One way to totally automate this system is to force everyone to get a RFID tag and an account such as ezPass. A passengers will pass a sensor at each entry and exit of the train which will determine the exact length of his trip and charged his account accordingly. This is a simple and failsafe system that works and we have the technology to implement it today. It does not require an AI system.

However, it is not always feasible to force everyone to get an RFID tag. Especially for infrequent riders or visitors from another city or country.

What would an AI system look like?

In order to replace the current conductor with an AI robot, given the exact same scenario, we would need some fancy programming. In addition, this robot will need to move easily between the cars of the trains. He would need facial recognition to identify the riders. He would need some ways to accept payments.

How would it insure that the rider pays the proper amount?

Challenges for AI Robotics

1. Mobility even among a fixed set of railway cars is not simple. It involves opening and closing doors. It involves balancing on a moving and sometimes shaking platform. It may involve moving around obstructions such as luggage, baby carriage...

2. Vandal proof. This system needs to be vandal proof. Some form of security backup in case of a passenger that is destructive.

3. Voice communications. In dealing with human customers, it needs to be able to understand a request from passengers.

4. Safety - In case of a major accident, a conductor is trained to handle emergencies. What can an AI robot do?


In this article, I try to highlight some problems or issues relating to replacing human jobs with automated robots. Some jobs may seem simple but they are not as simple or easily programmed. There are always intangibles that are not accounted for by the people making projections.

In specific, as in the case of the conductor, the human element is what is missing. A conductor is someone who can help an elderly man or women with their carry-ons, or a young mother with her infants, or handle a medical emergency, perform CPR...

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Jack Lee


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