12:03 pm
Thu September 20, 2012

The Ever-Encroaching World of Robotics

For a long time we've thought of robots as something foreign, not woven into our everyday experience. But now evidence is everywhere that robots are changing our lives — and our economy — even if we don't realize it. Robots pack our food, sew our clothes, and manufacture our computer chips.

So where is this all going? Can you imagine — or are you already seeing — a robot working next to you?

In order to understand the robotics' presence in your daily life, Jim Baum, the CEO of robotics company Symbotic, suggests envisioning a grocery store. Each store has shelves and shelves filled with hundreds of products. Before even reaching the store the store, these products be produced, processed, and transported. Robots often help facilitate the process— Baum says Symbotic robots work in some warehouses that move more than one million cases of dried groceries every week.

You might think that introducing robots to a warehouse is simple. Since robots don’t fatigue, they can carry endless loads of heavy boxes and not falter if a case weighs 50 pounds rather than 15. But different products require different handling. To package individual heads of lettuce, Baum notes, robots need to have a delicate touch and the ability to handle something damp. To tackle this challenge, scientists are increasing robots’ sensors, allowing it to realize if it is picking up something square, or soft.

Where Robots Are Headed

It is this increasing sensitivity that may soon allow robots to move out of warehouses and into the workforce at large. Michael Gennert, director of the Robotics Engineering Program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has made a hobby out of predicting where robotics are needed. “Every day I look around at jobs being done, and I think, ‘Hmm…we could get a robot to help with that,” Gennert says. He believes that says everything from construction to the military could benefit from the use of robotics.

In healthcare, robots are already helping with menial nursing tasks such as medication delivery so that nurses can invest more time in patient care. Gennert imagines that one day, robots may allow people to age comfortably in their homes. “You don’t want to go to a facility for elder people just because you can’t drink your coffee,” Gennert explains. “Well, if you had a robot in the kitchen helping you out, you could stay where you are longer and be much happier.”

Gennert and Baum agree that robots will have to develop the ability to perform many more simple tasks, and decrease in price significantly, before they enter the average home. That process could take many years. But not all developments in robotics are so far away. Rethink Robotics’ newly developed robot, “Baxter,” has the ability to work alongside humans in warehouses and manufacturing plants. Baxter can perform a variety of menial tasks, like assembling a product, after being shown the process by a human co-worker.

But Gennert says that introducing robots to the workplace does not have to mean a net loss of jobs. “We’ve already seen that we can’t compete with low cost labor for a lot of manufacturing," Gennert notes. "But if a robot is doing all that work, the robot can do it just as well here as off-shore.” When more manufacturing is located in the United States, Gennert argues, more skilled jobs in management, sales, finance and legal jobs result. “I think it’s really important that we have people do the higher-valued, higher skilled work,” he concludes. 

Watch the trailer for Robot and Frank, in theaters now.

And here's the trailer for an older one, Short Circuit, starring the inimitable Steve Guttenberg.