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TECHNOLOGY UPDATE

Self-controlled robots fly, run and serve

Automation progresses in military and civil applications.




Baxter is a new,inexpensivemanufacturing robot for use by, and among,factory workers.

Baxter is likely to be the first in a new generation of versatile, user-friendly robots, according to Re­think CEO Rodney Brooks.

Robots will understand tasks in terms of the objects, places and people that define the task, rather than as a series of simple motions.

They will exhibit simple forms of "common sense." For example, if a robot has been trained to put dishes in the dishwasher, but someone takes the dish out of its hands, it will understand that there is no need to continue heading to the dishwasher, but instead go back to the dining table for the next dish."

This spells better times ahead for US manufacturing, Brooks concludes. No-hassle robots like Baxter will make the US much more competitive against its peers in lower-wage countries.

Several other companies are developing so-called telepresence robots—mobile ambassadors that let their operators interact with people at a distance. Can't make a meeting across the country? A telepresence robot will let you be there without ever leaving your own office.

The simplest is Double, from Double Robotics in Miami FL. Founder & CEO David Cann calls it "a Segway for your iPad." It is just 2 wheels with a tablet computer mounted at the top of a tall stem.

The remote operator's face appears on the robot's screen while he controls it using a second iPad. The user can drive the robot from afar, look around its environment and chat with anyone he/she meets. Even before production began, when the company announced its new product, it pulled in more than $1 million worth of orders in just 3 weeks.

Another telepresence robot is the somewhat clunkily named RP-VITA. This stands for "remote presence virtual and independent telemedicine assistant." Intended for doctors, the robot carries a flatscreen monitor for its head and a touchscreen control pad on its chest.

The doctor's face appears on the monitor, and the doctor can see the patient through 2 hi-def cameras and chat via a microphone and loudspeaker. The doctor can also use the camera to zoom in on a wound or blemish at magnifications up to 30 times.

Built by iRobot of Menlo Park CA—the company that brought us 8 million Roomba vacuum cleaners and the Pak­Bot military robot—RP-VITA is now being tested in 15 clinics around the US. It seems most useful in rural areas, where a patient might need a specialist who is not available locally.

"It's not whoever's in the building," says iRobot Co-Founder & CEO Colin Angle. "It's whoever in the world is the most appropriate person or team to treat you when you need it."

In the long run, he believes RP-VITA might even revive the old-fashioned house call and reduce healthcare costs in the process. Before that, however, RP-VITA requires approval from FDA, expected by the end of 2012.

Hector, another medical robot created by the Companion­Able Project in the European Union, is a cheerful-looking yellow pillar about 3 ft high. Hector is designed to function as a sort of butler, nurse and pet for seniors living on their own. He can remind his owner to take medicine on schedule.

He can also carry glasses, keys and other frequently misplaced items, obey orders such as, "Follow me!" and even evaluate a fall and summon the most appropriate emergency help. After 4 years of work, Hector is nearing the end of field trials in Belgium and the Netherlands.

This has been just a short survey of significant robot projects. For every one included here, we have missed many others. Yet the trends are clear. In the past 2 years, robots have grown smarter, more useful and—at least on the civilian side—easier for human beings to live with.

Changing our world

Whether this particular glass is half full, half empty, or just bigger than it needs to be depends strongly on who we are. For the vast generation of Baby Boomers now approaching their senior years, telepresence and companion robots offer better health and more independent lives.

For a grunt humping equip­ment through heat-soaked backcountry, having a brawny, reliable—and some day, we hope, quiet—robot to pack the hardware and supplies can only come as a relief.

Robot makers like Rodney Brooks at Rethink Robotics view these and other robotic benefits and see the sun bringing a new dawn for US manufacturing. In his view, inexpensive, easy-to-use robots like his company's Baxter will free production-line workers from dull, repetitive jobs to do tasks that require human dexterity and judgment. "As a result," he concludes, "US manufacturers and US workers will be more competitive on the global stage."

Yet some of these developments are putting robots on a collision course with human aspirations. There is less each day that our digital competition can't do better, faster and cheaper than we can. At an automation trade show in Chicago last year, consultant Ron Potter of Fac­tory Automation Systems, in Atlanta GA, offered attendees a spreadsheet to calculate how quickly robots would pay for themselves.

In one case, a $250,000 robotic manufacturing system would have replaced 2 machine operators with salaries of $50,000 per year. Over a 15-year life, the robot would have delivered an estimated $3.5 million in labor savings and improved productivity. But 2 human workers would have had to find new jobs.

"The pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic implications," MIT Economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee wrote in their book Race Against the Machine.

Automation has good and bad sides. Technology enables people to get more done, but often at the expense of shrinking workforces. This has been a major contributor to the so-called jobless recoveries that have followed recent recessions. Companies downsize in bad times, but when the economy starts to turn around they buy more efficient equipment, rather than hiring human workers.

Manufacturing today occupies about 11% of the US workforce today—down from 20% in 1979. If some observers are correct, it could be headed toward the sub-1% territory now occupied by farming. Worker demand in other labor-heavy sectors such as warehousing could collapse as well.

(Warehouses themselves could begin to disappear as automated cargo planes usher in a new era of just-in-time sourcing.) American companies could wind up on top of the world again, as they have not been since low-wage Chinese firms began to outcompete them. But US workers could easily find themselves unemployed and unemployable.

We may be seeing the beginning of this trend as US GDP recovers from its recent low but jobless rates remain stubbornly high.

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