Robots as our co-workers

Photo credit: Flickr (br1dotcom)

Photo credit: Flickr (br1dotcom)

We know robots for very long. They are regular characters in sci-fi movies, coming in all shapes and with many competencies. In those movies we have seen human relationships with good, evil or just emotively blank robots. Isaac Asimov was the pioneering author who showed us what living with robots could possible mean. In our averyday reality, we know robots who are ‘working’ in car manufacturing. We are also quite familiar with the robotic vacuum cleaner, or lawnmower. There have been robotic toys on the market like Aibo, the robotic dog.
But right now, we can see that the robots of tomorrow will be much more than that. Technology of today is already bringing great opportunities for robots with amazing sensory abilities, allowing them to perform tasks in many different areas. So will we see robots actually becoming our co-workers?
The robots of today are gradually getting better in making situation appropriate judgements. They see, hear and feel the surroundings quite accurately and they understand it too. All this makes them really look and feel like a human being. Even more important is that they sense their surroundings. Therefore, they are no hazard to humans, and won’t run them over. Previous car manufacturing robots were oblivious to others and had to be kept in isolation from human workers. Modern robots can be a partner in just any workshop as they learn easily in a ‘learning by doing’ mode. So every co-worker can instruct them. Baxter is just this new type of robot. He is the revolutionary work-bot from Rethink Robotics, designed by former MIT professor Rodney Brooks. And it comes in a fairly reasonable price of $22,000.

As robot are getting very affordable, we will be seeing serious trade-offs between human workers and robots. One interesting example is a restaurant in China, where robots are both cooking and waiting the tables. While this may seem mainly an interesting feature to attract customers, robots are also to be seen in other professions. They can pick fruits and vegetables, which would be the ultimate solution for agricultural businesses that need a cheep and reliable workforce. Robots are also perfectly suitable for dangerous jobs, such as rescue workers. They can do things that humans can’t. They are not bothered by smoky air, or very hot surfaces. Currently, DARPA is running a two-year-long Robotic Challenge Program hoping to generate exciting designs for robots in the rescuing business. Recent catastrophes such as Fukushima nuclear disaster and super storm Sandy have shown a great need for these robots. In another setting robots can support us, when we need nursing or health care. Toyota’s partner robot program will come up with robots who assist in activities like patient transfer, balance assistance and walk training.
So should we be worried that robots are taking our jobs? That’s a great question. Probably jobs that require little education and demand repetitive actions will be replaced by robots over time. Dangerous jobs probably too. Animators whether in health care, child care, or public spaces might also be replaced by robots. They do their jobs, are funny and entertaining for people. And maybe it won’t even be a huge step, because robots are already in our hearts and minds.

About Freija Van Duijne

Twitter: @FreijavanDuijne Futuring is my passion. I am fascinated about what the future might bring. Always looking around for leads about the future and open for new insights. I am futurist, trendwatchter and strategist at the The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, a thinktank in the Netherlands. My background is in Human factors psychology. I did my Masters at Leiden University and I did a PhD in Delft University at the faculty of Industrial design engineering. I have been involved in foresight studies since 2006. I am frequently asked as an expert for future studies in area of food, natural resources, health and governance. I am also a speaker and workshop facilitator on futures studies, trend presentations and the many topics that I blog about. My contributions to Futuristablog represent my own personal opinion and is never a statement of the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
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