Mar 21 6:00 PM

Need to Know: The robotic revolution

In a blog post about DARPA’s Robotics Challenge, Erico Guizzo, senior editor for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Spectrum publication, acknowledges that we are still years away from robots being able to completely take over most human tasks.

“Robots are generally still too limited in what they can do," says Guizzo. "They may be great for carrying out repetitive tasks in clutter-free environments, but entering a rubble-strewn building, climbing ladders, using fire hoses—these operations are beyond today’s best robots.”

They may not be able to function like humans (yet), but specialized robots are revolutionizing manufacturing and production processes in nearly every industry. From a machine that can pick strawberries to drones fighting overseas, there is no question that humankind’s future will be one filled with automated experiences.



According to a study from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, 47 percent of total US employment is susceptible to computerization. The study points out historical examples of precedent, such as tractors replacing farm animals and the computerization of the assembly line and pinpoints the ten jobs that will be next to go: telemarketers, title examiners, sewers, mathematical technicians, insurance underwriters, watch repairers, cargo and freight agents, tax preparers, photographic process workers, new accounts clerks, and library technicians.

The Agrobot uses cameras to pinpoint and pick the ripest strawberries, eliminating the need for manual labor.

But robots are also creating jobs. In a 2011 study entitled "Positive Impact of Industrial Robots on Employment,” market research firm Metra Martech concluded that one million industrial robots currently in use have been directly responsible for the creation of three million jobs worldwide. Moreover, the story predicts, growing robot use will continue to create another million high quality jobs over the next five years. The study goes on to argue that the use of robots to carry out work that would be too menial, dangerous, or even impossible for humans means that they are creating better jobs as well.



U.S. Army General Robert Cone predicts that by 2030, one-fourth of combat soldiers could be replaced by drones and robots, reducing manpower without sacrificing firepower. Cone acknowledges that unmanned ground vehicles and drones could help the Army move towards becoming “a smaller, more lethal, deployable and agile force."

Drones are also being used to help fight wildfires.

An automated military division could also be beneficial on the homefront, in circumstances like natural or nuclear disasters, when sending in human troops is too dangerous. After three of six reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant melted down in the wake of Japan’s devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 2011, robots were sent in to get initial readings of temperature and radiation levels while the site was still too dangerous for human access.



Robots are also becoming increasingly valuable in hospitals and health care. From handling linens to making rounds, the Wall Street Journal reports that thousands of “service robots” will enter the health-care sector within the next few years. By using robots to keep a virtual eye on their patients, doctors can remotely monitor symptoms rather than relying on second-hand observation.

By using robots to help remotely monitor patients, doctors can more accurately provide care.

Robots can also help eliminate human error in hospitals, especially when it comes to dispensing prescriptions. Several robotic prescription dispensers are already on the market. UCSF’s Medical Center’s automated pharmacy prepared it’s first 350,000 doses without one error and is still running smoothly to this day, keeping patients safer by doling out prescriptions without the risk of overdosages or mixed medications.


Some innovators even hope to take robots beyond passive automated assistance, designing them to learn and share with each other. A project called RoboEarth Cloud Engine is linking robots up to their own cloud-based database to allow them to share information and work together to complete tasks. The plan is for robots to use the RoboEarth interface as a knowledge base, communication medium, and computational resource. The program is being tested in a Dutch hospital, where four robots in one room will work together to complete tasks like serving patients food and beverages.

“The goal of RoboEarth is to allow robotic systems to benefit from the experience of other robots, paving the way for rapid advances in machine cognition and behaviour, and ultimately, for more subtle and sophisticated human-machine interaction,” says the company's website.

Robots are also making humans smarter. A 2012 study at six public universities found that students who used automated teaching software (with smaller amounts of face-to-face instructor time) learned just as well as students who took the same course in the traditional classroom format.


To learn more about robotic innovations, watch "TechKnow," Saturday 7ET/4PT.


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