Digital lifestyle: robots taking our jobs

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 August, 2012, 12:21pm

Most of us have had our job titles changed, been made redundant, or perhaps even fired. But imagine being replaced by a robot.

Simple mechanised machinery doing specific repetitive tasks revolutionised the automotive and electronics industries long ago. Now Foxconn's CEO has indicated that the Chinese company's workforce will be augmented by robots, citing rising salary demands as the cause.

But worrying about the immediate future of assembly line jobs is terribly short-term, says Antonio Espingadeiro, robot expert and member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). "Millions of robots are producing cars, planes, trains and the majority of household appliances that we use every day," he says. "Not only do we still have jobs, but in fact the best jobs in human history. Humans are likely to co-exist with, and be assisted by machines, but they are also likely to take more advantage of teamwork by developing strengths and relationships that they never thought were possible."

Uma Pingali, regional director North Asia at element14 Asia Pacific, also dismisses the robot takeover theory. "While lower wages are a key factor in mass production, China enjoys many other advantages such as a highly developed technology ecosystem that has steadily built up over the past five years," he says, adding that in places like Shenzhen the composition of the local population is likely to tip towards more skilled workers. "Robots will also help to create jobs in some of the most critical industries of this century - consumer electronics, food, solar and wind power, and advanced battery manufacturing, to name just a few," says Pingali.

"Given that Shenzhen is at the heart of the supply chain, we expect there to be advantages to the local population, too."

A study by the International Federation of Robotics recently concluded that one million industrial robots being used have been directly responsible for the creation of close to three million jobs - and that growth in robot use over the next five years will create a further million posts.

Away from industry, it's the home that robots are already beginning to colonise. Samsung's NaviBot robotic cleaner uses a video camera to document a home's layout, chart the most efficient course, hops back onto its charging dock when necessary, and remembers where it left off.

"Robots can be protagonists of the three Ds - dirty, dangerous and dull," says Espingadeiro. "The number of applications that we would like to see robots handle is relative to the decreasing amount of time we have to spend on general life admin tasks." General household tasks for robots could include ironing, folding clothes, cooking, cleaning and gardening.

Also offering a brush with the future is Roomba, a robotic cleaner from a company called iRobot whose ambitions stretch way further than intelligent vacuuming. Its prototype for a fully mobile robotic helper, called Eva, responds to human instruction and even starts conversations in its quest to rid humans of menial daily tasks.

The next step is the "robo nurse", home help robots that can dispense medicine and even diagnose medical conditions. Espingadeiro is working on his own Socially Assistive Robot (SAR) called P37, a robot that's designed to cope with the demographic changes of an ageing population.

"P37 is a robot that can provide cognitive assistance, entertainment, supervision and even companionship for elderly groups," he says. "The robot can be programmed with the list of daily medications and tasks that can remind people and their carers, and play games with the elderly by asking general questions about subjects that they are interested in, which neuroscientists believe exercises the brain and keeps the elderly active." Using a teleprescence screen, P37 can also act as a personal trainer to encourage its owner to exercise, and use the same screen to allow communication between the owner and their human carer, relative or medical practitioner.

"SARs are not meant to substitute human contact between vulnerable groups and their carers," says Espingadeiro. "The use of SARs is targeted to the expansion of human capabilities and dignity involved in the exercise of care."

It's possible that domestic telepresence robots will diagnose and collect live data if equipped with basic medical tools, taking the pressure off hospitals and doctors.

Industrial robotics is also busy replacing or extending human efficiency regardless of location, but this time it's often in dangerous situations. At their best these robots closely mimic the human form. An example is the world's first human-sized, five-fingered robotic hand that can learn to grasp and manipulate objects of any size or texture. It's something that the robotics community has struggled with, but Professor Bruno Siciliano from the University of Naples, Italy, is co-ordinating the Dexmart project that has built an anthropomorphic five-fingered robotic hand that can handle eggs, pick up and turn around a credit card, and take a pen from another person. "If robots are to transform life and work alongside humans then they must be able to handle items just as humans can with their hands," he says. "Manipulation is a complex task that robots must learn to master."

Learning through observation is up next for robotics, though a handy halfway solution is "tele-existence", where a robot is effectively operated like a puppet by a single human "driver". This is anthropomorphism writ large: a human can bind with TELESAR V, a robot developed by the University of Tokyo, to remotely touch and feel an object in its hands.

Unmanned ground vehicles with mechanical arms are already used to search for and discharge landmines and unexploded ordnance. The very idea of robots in war zones creates an ugly, though thankfully unrealistic, Terminator-esque image for some. More worrying is the claim that robots will take over menial tasks so we can have more leisure time. Like the desktop computer promised, right? If you do get a robot for your home, don't tell the boss.