Robots fill new roles at work

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Taking jobs away?

Although K'NEX and Think Logistics report that they have had no layoffs tied to their adoption of robotics, some skeptics say the increasing use of robots will ultimately eliminate jobs. But fans of the technology answer that dull, repetitive tasks are ideal for robotics and that it's better to take these boring jobs out of the hands of humans who are prone to error and inefficiency.

Indeed, some robotics aficionados insist that, although technology will inevitably lead to the elimination of some jobs now done by humans, robots will ideally free people up to focus on creative tasks, while helping companies save money and reducing the need for offshore labor.

If anything, "I'm afraid we're not going to have enough robots," says Rodney Brooks, founder and CTO of Rethink Robotics, which makes the Baxter line of robots. Brooks, who is also a professor emeritus at MIT, says his goal in developing Baxter was to help find a way to keep manufacturing operations in the United States so that type of work wouldn't have to be outsourced to countries like China. He estimates that the U.S. spent $350 billion on manufacturing in China in 2007. If that money were spent here instead, he reasons, the jobs would stay here as well—but they'd be different jobs.

roomba
Roomba

Before developing Baxter, Brooks, who also co-founded iRobot, maker of the popular Roomba automatic vacuum cleaner and other robotic devices, says he spent a lot of time in factories talking to workers. He would ask them if they wanted their kids to work in factories, and "the universal answer was no," he says.

"You see an aging population of workers because people don't want to do repetitive tasks. These are not jobs people are lining up for, because they're dull and repetitive," says Brooks, calling that type of work "mind-numbingly bad."

Brooks envisions people moving to work in other areas of the supply chain, such as logistics and shipping.

Not everyone shares that outlook. Software developer and entrepreneur Martin Ford, for example, believes the workforce faces a dire future because of the growing acceptance of both physical robot units and software automation tools that will increasingly take jobs away from humans. Ford authored the book The Lights in the Tunnel, which paints an apocalyptic picture of robots taking over both blue-collar and white-collar jobs.

"A lot of those jobs are going to evaporate because the [automated] enterprise software is going to encompass specialized artificial intelligence" that, he says, can do much better than humans on tasks like analyzing data or setting up spreadsheets. Moreover, a lot of routine physical work—sifting through boxes for evidence at a law firm, for instance—will increasingly be done by automated systems, Ford says.

"I see a wholesale invasion of robots and software automation pretty much everywhere... any job on any level that's routine and predictable, where you do the same types of things again and again," he maintains.

In 10 to 20 years, robots will have "a real impact on employment," Ford says. "It's a huge, critical economic and social problem."

Robotics "appears best suited for processes that are highly rules-driven, and the requirement for which is too tactical or short-lived to justify development by IT organizations," says James Slaby, a research director at Boston-based business and IT consultancy Horses For Sources, who wrote a 2012 report called " Robotic Automation Emerges as a Threat to Traditional Low-Cost Outsourcing."

"Beyond breaking through the IT development bottleneck, the use of software robots to handle routine business processes has another attraction: It allows enterprises to reduce their reliance on offshore outsourcing," Slaby wrote. He was talking about automating routine jobs and processes via robotic automation, which typically includes both a toolkit and development environment that creates a robot or software agent that runs in a virtual machine and automates rote work like data entry. The toolkit "generates software that runs as a Web service, a scheduled task in a virtual machine, or as a sub-process of an enterprise application like a BPM, workflow, or messaging system," Slaby explains.

Slaby identifies the company Blue Prism as an early leader in this type of software, and he says he expects other companies to enter the market—many of them fairly soon. For its part, Blue Prism bills itself as a provider of "operational agility" software.

An expanding market

Araten says he doesn't necessarily believe K'NEX is doing anything visionary or cutting-edge. He points out that big companies have used robotics for 20 years. What has changed, he says, is that more aggressive marketing and lower pricing have made robots are more readily available to midsize manufacturers.

"It's only in the first inning for midsize manufacturers, who are conservative and want to see others [use robots] first," Araten says. "So you haven't seen a lot of deployment in midsize manufacturers yet. But expect to see that change in the next few years, because they'll see other midsize companies do it and [they'll] think they should look at it."

For his part, Brooks won't divulge exactly how many Baxters have shipped, but he says it's in the hundreds and he expects it to be in the thousands by the end of the year.

Echoing Araten's observation, he says he set up Rethink Robotics to target the small manufacturers that have not previously used robots because "that's how we make manufacturing stronger in this country—by making the small manufacturers strong and competitive on the world stage. I set out to do this because I thought it was strategically important for the U.S. to strengthen its manufacturing capabilities."

"It's like in early days of the PC: You got one in the door and there was one desk where all the people in the office used that computer and it took a while before they realized there should be one on every desk," Brooks says. "These things take a while."

Up-and-coming robots

There are dozens of companies with prototypes of robots that are designed to perform or help with a variety of tasks. Many are years in the making. Here's a roundup of some.

  • IBM and EMC are piloting a version of iRobot's Roomba vacuum cleaner to patrol data centers and measure temperature and humidity. The robot has sensors and a webcam and is programmed to see where hotspots are developing and determine if any cold air is being wasted. The goal is to use the resulting maps to cool the hardware and save energy by making cooling systems more efficient.
  • Still in development is a snake -- a multijointed robot -- that recently slithered and crawled its way around the Zwentendorf nuclear power plant in Austria as a test of its maneuverability. The robot, developed at Carnegie Mellon University, can inspect areas of the power plant that had been considered unreachable.
  • Another recent innovation is Solarbrush, a robotic cleaning system for solar panels, which can lose up to 35% of their efficiency if they are soiled with sand, dust or other debris, according to the Berlin-based maker of the technology. Solarbrush is the brainchild of Ridha Azaiz, who developed the first prototype at 13. Now 27, Azaiz has designed Solarbrush to clean and maintain photovoltaic (PV) cells in arid regions of the world; the system is in trials at companies in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, a company spokesman says.
  • Farming is a big target for robotic automation. For example, mapping and navigation technology company Vision Robotics is developing prototypes of an automated tool that wine makers can use to prune grape vines. The tool uses cameras and computers to create 3D models of grape vines. The images are fed into a computer, which then tells a robotic arm how much to clip. The company also sells a robotic lettuce trimmer. According to Vision Robotics President Bret Wallach, the device does the work of dozens of people and was developed in response to requests from farmers who said they are having trouble finding workers.
  • Lettuce Bot, from Blue River Technology, is another robotic machine for tending lettuce that's in testing. A tractor-towed device, Lettuce Bot can thin a field of lettuce in the time it would take 20 people to do the job by hand, according to Blue River, which has raised over $3 million in venture capital. Blue River is also working on systems for weeding organic fields. These agricultural robots are not expected to be commercially available for a few years.
  • A humanoid robot named ATLAS, whose goal is to advance disaster response, was recently unveiled by DARPA. Designed by Boston Dynamics, ATLAS is 6 feet, 2 inches tall, weighs 330 lbs. and is capable of a range of natural movements, according to DARPA. "ATLAS is one of the most advanced humanoid robots ever built, but is essentially a physical shell for the software brains and nerves that the teams will continue to develop and refine," DARPA said in a statement.
  • New York-based Yotel, a futuristic hotel, has partnered with robotic systems maker MFG Automation to use a robotic arm to manage the storage of guests' luggage. Dubbed Yobot, the device brings a container to an area where guests can drop off their luggage and then stores it in one of 117 bins. Guests enter a PIN and their last name and are issued a receipt with a bar code by Yobot. They turn in their receipts when they're ready to pick up their bags. CEO Gerard Greene says Yotel has agreements with JFK and Newark airports to have Yobot transfer luggage from tunnels through the airports so guests can pick up their bags at terminals.

This story, "Robots fill new roles at work" was originally published by Computerworld.

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