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6 Robots that *Don’t* Take People’s Jobs

15 November 2011 No Comment

Let’s face it. Robots are cool, but nobody wants them.

You hear it all the time: “Why don’t you just ask a human to fold towels/entertain/vacuum/work on an assembly line? Do we really need them? Why robots, when I can just hire my favourite minimum wage immigrant?” The questions are hard, but true.

The business of robots is bleak. Outside of research and education, robots in Japan and abroad are now sold to companies as crowd-draws. What happens when the novelty wears off?

Let me tell you what I think:

What we need are more robots with super powers.

We’ve been using robots to replace people or do things we don’t want to do. That’s fine, and it certainly appeals to those of us that have the money and luxury to do so. Factories, the industrial revolution, and mechanized work processes have made our economy what it is today.

But everybody loves robots that do things humans literally CAN’T.

Let’s look at some examples. Some of them are obvious.

Robots can withstand extreme conditions

Radiation

"Humans get radiation poisoning, robots don't"

Fukushima taught us that robots are key to dealing with mess-ups in nuclear energy. I heard a lot of horror stories about Japanese workers having to withstand dangerous radiation levels to cool the reactor, or else everyone would die. Radiation-proof robots exist. What’s next is more dexterity and functionality.

Deep-sea

"Humans get crushed in deep-sea pressures, robots don't."

Remember the BP oil spill? The birds and fish washed up on to greasy shores? Underwater robots were used to cap the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. To my knowledge though, they were tough to manipulate even for the most experienced of technicians.

Space

"Humans explode* in vacuums, robots don't"

Space. The final frontier. There’s a robot up in space right now who doesn’t care that it doesn’t have air. Still, he goes about his job, fixing the International Space Station, like a good robot. Ditto with the Mars Rover and its aloof, exploratory ways.

* or have their blood boiled, whatever

Robots aren’t better, just different

Autism Therapy

"Humans bother kids with autism, robots don't"

Aldebaran’s NAO and Keepon are a few of the robots being used for autism therapy. Robots teach kids with autism the social conventions that are obvious to most: an example is saying, “Thank you”.

The problem is that humans come with all sorts of cues — eyes moving, head tilting, mouth smiling, voice changing, hands pointing, etc. And all of these signs at once are overwhelming.

Because the robot makes simple movements, the child can extract the “gist” of the social signal without withdrawing into himself.

Germs

"Humans (and animals) have germs, robots don't"

One potential idea is companion robots for clean rooms. Children that undergo chemotherapy can spend up to a year or more in solitary clean rooms, away from dangerous germs but also away from the warmth of people. How about a robot to keep them company, tell them jokes to keep their spirits up, without exposing them to disease?

Paro, the seal robot, has also been brought into shelters in Northern Japan, post-tsunami. Where animal lovers have to be separated from their pets because they’re not allowed in shelters, robo-pets might be the ticket to cuddle-time.

Sensory perception

"Humans have to pay attention to one thing at a time, robots don't"

The new ASIMO recently came out, with a functionality called simultaneous speech recognition — it can listen to up to three (and in some experiments, four) people talking at the same time, and understand them all. Got lots of kids bugging you for stuff at the same time? Enter super-hearing robot!

It’s tough to imagine these kinds of robot applications, because we don’t do them ourselves. What other super-human robots can you think of?

Angelica loves robots. So, after getting her Bachelors in Computing Science, she moved to Japan to do research on… you guessed it… robots. Follow her on Twitter.

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