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Story ideas: Robots replacing workers?

August 28, 2013

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A robot bottler. Photo by Tom Magliery

For many people, the term “robot” still calls to mind Transformers, the bustling maid from The Jetsons or the droid that shouted “Danger Will Robinson!” in “Lost in Space.”

Friendly sidekick robots aren’t common in real life, but they have been used for years for precision applications in factories from painting car bodies in auto plants  to defusing bombs.  Medical robots are not new, though there seems to be a big push lately. And health systems have to make sure those multi-million dollar machines that can take out kidney stones and cancer start paying for themselves. Here Medscape asks if there is “too much, too soon,” in the robotic surgery world.

And these days, amid an economic climate defined by stagnant jobs and wages, robot buzz often crops up in discussions of disappearing low-skilled jobs.  Will more jobs in industries like food service will be lost to “robo grillers” like the hamburger-flipping robot designed by Momentum Machines of San Francisco? The company says the robots can fry up 360 burgers an hour while customizing the meat mix per order and slicing condiments on the go.  Other reports say that robots sensitive enough to pick easily damaged crops soon will replace agricultural workers in farm fields; a Lettuce Bot can thin a row of greens, for example, quicker than 20 workers doing the job by hand.  Global sales of industrial robots hit their second highest level ever in 2012, according to industry reports, and 2013 was expected to be another milestone year.

Point being there is barely an industry that hasn’t been touched by this sort of automation, defined as “any automated machine that replaces human effort”  — the foreign root words for robot often are said to mean “serf labor.”   Clearly, the notion of robots has both fascinated and frightened humankind for centuries — check out this fascinating Wikipedia entry on robot references over the ages, they go back further than you might think — and never more so now than when humans are worried about competition from one another, let alone machines.    Wired magazine says the reason robots are rearing up more now is because not only have their functional capabilities been honed, what passes for their minds is also getting sharper — and the thinking robot will be able to take over more human tasks.  Wired says that’s not a bad thing; it will leave humans more time to perfect only jobs that humans can do and think up new ones — the article is a must-read if you’ll be doing any interviews on the subject of robots, because agree or not, it raises philosophical questions about replacing women and men with machines that you will want to bring up with employers in your area.

To localize the robot story, you can look for existing and upcoming industrial applications on your beat. Here’s one company’s industry directory, for example, that lists machines for uses ranging from manufacturing to packaging.  In addition to traditional manufacturing uses, here’s an Entrepreneur report from earlier this year about other commercial applications, from food service to health care.   Are robot caregivers going to be assisting the elders of the future?  Robots can deal blackjack, care for lab rats and work as security guards, already.  What are some the coolest robot applications at firms near you — and did they cause net job loss, or were new jobs supervising and maintaining the robots created?

Naturally you will want to do a sidebar about household robot use too, from little vacuum cleaners to litter-box changers to lawn mowers; here’s a neat Vancouver Sun article with more ideas.  Flying robots that whiz about capturing household dust and dirt also are in the works; sign me up!

Numerous industry publications and professional associations can point you to manufacturers, distributors and other players in your region as well as to industry statistics; for starters try the Robotics Industries Association, the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society, the Minimally Invasive Robotics Association and the International Federation of RoboticsThe Robot Report, which says it tracks the business of robotics, also looks like a good source of leads


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