Robots are Changing the World: Should You Fear Them?

Ultron sought the annihilation of humanity. Most robots in the Terminator franchise have been evil. Humanoid robots in iRobot plotted to take over humans. The war of Autobot and Predacon robots have brought massive destruction on Earth. With all the pop culture depiction of advanced robotics, it’s not surprising why some fear the growing presence of robots.

However, there are also those who are more aware of what robotics in the real word is – and they too have legitimate concerns. Robots in various forms are increasingly becoming common and they are changing the world.

Effecting efficiency in manufacturing

Robots are widely used in the manufacturing industry. They are a key element in the automation of various processes. They are deployed in assembly lines to perform repetitive tasks such as welding, painting, the installation of parts, the movement of components, as well as machine tending. Certainly, efficiency in manufacturing did not happen only with the introduction of robot, but it rose dramatically as robots came into play.

Expanding exploration and navigation capabilities

At the moment, what tops the successful Mars mission by NASA as far as exploration is concerned? Probably none. This incredible milestone in space exploration was made possible with the help of a robot called Curiosity. NASA may have already lost contact with this small SUV-sized space exploration rover, but the data it transmitted back to Earth provided invaluable contributions to the human endeavor to know more about things beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

The militaries of different countries are also prominent users of robots for navigation and exploration. They deploy drones for surveillance, new terrain scouting, transportation, as well as for rescue and attack missions. The Indian Army uses the DRDO Daksh, a remotely controlled robot designed for locating, handling, and disposing of hazardous items. The militaries of the United States, Israel, Brazil, Singapore, Thailand, and several other countries use the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) Elbit Hermes 450 for surveillance, recon, and communication relay missions.

Accelerating agriculture

Robots can also be found in the rural areas as they assist farmers in producing various food products. There are robotic farm equipment designed for machine-assisted planting, the application of fertilizers and insecticides, automated watering, weeding, produce harvesting, as well as the sorting and packing of farm products. Robots make large scale farming considerably faster and more efficient.

Larger than life logistics

With the rise of e-commerce comes the need to find ways to make shipping and logistics more efficient than ever. Robotics presents a highly viable solution in the form of autonomous mobile robots (AMR) that locate, monitor, and move inventory in warehouses and similar facilities.

California-based Fetch Robotics developed an AMR with a mobile base,  modular attachments, and a cloud-based software system that enable seamless automation in warehouses. Another California robotics company, InVia Robotics, created a range of AI-powered AMRs that collaboratively operate to handle various logistics tasks including the replenishment of inventory, goods-to-person tote retrieval, the verification of stocks, and cycle counting.

Speeding up search and rescue operations

Robots are valuable in responding to crisis incidents such as mining accidents, earthquakes, urban disasters, explosions, and the aftermath of wars. They can be used to survey a location, navigate around hazardous places especially war-torn areas rigged with landmines, get into spaces inaccessible to human rescuers, lift or move debris, deliver supplies, and facilitate the evacuation of survivors.

One notable search and rescue robot is The Centauro, which was developed by Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia. Looking like a centaur, this four-legged machine is packed with mobility and manipulation functions to be a versatile disaster relief tool. Other promising search and rescue robots are the tank-like CHIMP by Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center, the omnidirectional-driving Momaro by the University of Bonn in Germany, and the humanoid Thormang 2 by Robotis Ltd.

Augmenting assistive technology

Assistive robots are created to do physical tasks that help people with physical disabilities as well as seniors with their everyday living. They can be fixed-base or mobile robots. The former is used in workstations or bedside to administer medicine, supply food, and tend to the health of a person. The latter can be wheelchair-based to aid in the autonomous navigation of people who otherwise cannot move around on their own, or they can be autonomous to fetch and carry a person or provide mobility support. Assistive robotics are mostly used to help people with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, rheumatoid arthritis, stroke, and temporary physical impairment.

Enhancing human abilities through exoskeletons

If there are robots used to help people with physical disabilities, there are also those created to support people with normal faculties. Their function is to enhance human abilities particularly when it comes to lifting or moving heavy objects. There are exoskeletons used in therapeutic and clinical settings, but there are also those intended to boost physical abilities.

Construction workers, for example, can do more with the help of robotic exoskeletons, allowing them to lift heavy objects and perform repetitive tasks with more stamina to spare. Soldiers can also don exoskeletons not only in the battlefield but also to respond to disasters and undertake search and rescue missions.

The ‘dreaded’ changes

The military applications of robotics are no longer included in the discussions above since they are obviously dreadful. They are designed to be fatal. They are part of the never-ending desire of countries with advanced militaries to project power in the guise of defense. Some would say the fear they bring is an inevitable consequence of defense advancement.

The more important points here are on the way robots are changing the world in aspects affecting everyday people. In particular, the efficiency robots bring about is expected to displace human workers. Efficient robots in manufacturing, agriculture, logistics, and other fields are taking away jobs from people. Businesses are seeing how they are more cost-efficient in the long run as compared to human employees. They don’t get tired and can deliver consistent output over extended work hours. They don’t demand bonuses, salary increases, benefits, insurance, and other forms of compensation. They may entail a costly initial expenditure, but after taking everything into account, many businesses see them as better than human workers to some extent.

Cause for caution, not fear

It’s inevitable for technology to eventually dominate modern societies and businesses. There are even personal robots regarded as world-changing. The ADA robotic hand by Open bionics, for example, helps people regain the ability to grasp things through electromyography. People with mobility disorders can move around autonomously with the Phoenix powered exoskeleton. The hospitality industry may soon be filled with robotic receptionists or assistants like Pepper developed by Softbank Robotics.

While robots may take away some jobs from humans, they don’t and will never replace humans. They only take over relatively simple albeit tedious jobs such as the repetitive steps in product assembly lines, cleaning, basic communication, and other tasks that don’t require higher human skills. It’s even worth noting that robots fittingly replace people in highly risky roles.

The challenge is for human workers to develop their skills to perform tasks that are unlikely to be replaced by robots such as journalism, 100% accurate language translation,  programming, healthcare, engineering, psychology, and teaching. Additionally, humans need to make sure that the robots they create are safe to deploy, and the infusion of artificial intelligence does not result in autonomous robots that harm people and nature.

Robotics-induced change is already ongoing. There’s nothing to fear about it, but everyone should prepare and become something robots cannot supplant. Robots,  after all, are human creation. It’s up to humans to make them work for their advantage.

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