Over the next decade, the number and variety of robots in the workplace will soar, taking over many jobs that are too dirty, too dull or too dangerous for people to do. Already, about 1.4 million industrial robots are deployed around the world, as well as several million robotic devices designed for in-home consumer use. And potential growth is vast: Only about 10 percent of possible industrial users, for example, have actually incorporated robots into their processes.
In time, the use of robotics will likely spawn millions of new American jobs in designing, building, monitoring and maintaining electronic workers, in fields yet imagined. But short term, robots will displace thousands of workers, especially in fields that draw heavily on low-wage labor and/or put a premium on rote consistency, accuracy and endurance.
1. In hospitals, medical centers and nursing homes
As one of the country's fastest growing industries, health care is attracting a lot of attention from robotics designers and makers. Doctor-controlled surgical robots are already on the job. Within the decade, microscopic bots -- both biological and mechanical -- will be used to clear clogged arteries, measure blood viscosity and deliver drugs to precise locations in the body.
Mechanical aides will increasingly assist nurses and others who provide routine care, easing the need for nurse's aides, home health care aides and other positions that have been hard to fill. Among the tasks that robots will perform:
a) Lifting and repositioning patients
b) Delivering medications to patients' rooms.
c) Acting as mobile supply closets, following nurses from room to room.
d) Delivering lab samples and reports.
e) Conducting routine monitoring of patients -- taking temperatures, blood pressure, glucose and so on.
2. Food preparation
As that lettuce makes it way to market, it might soon encounter another robot. Organic food provider Earthbound Farm Organic is using bots from Adept Technology to pack plastic clamshell containers full of greens. Earthbound has made a point of finding other positions for the displaced workers.
Food processing is rife with jobs that are open to robotic replacement. Scientists at the Georgia Tech Research Institute are developing a robotic system that can debone a chicken. With a 3-D vision system, the robot can adapt to different sizes of birds. It uses a feedback system to sense the junction of ligament and bone, thereby reducing the hazard of bone chips.
3. In and around the home
You've probably already seen Roomba, the best known of iRobot's line of autonomous house-cleaning devices. The roving vacuums have been cleaning floors and terrorizing pets for over 10 years, and iRobot has developed devices that mop floors and clean pools and gutters.
Next up: a robot that does windows. Windoro, developed in South Korea, uses a powerful magnet to keep it stuck to vertical glass. Bots will eventually even fold the family laundry. But that's just a start. They'll have a role as personal assistants, especially for the elderly living at home. Industrial giants in Japan (where the population is rapidly graying) are leading this charge.
Toyota has a robot in the works that, among other tasks, can pick up and tote items around the house, remind Grandma to take her pills and let someone watch via Skype while she does it. Honda's ASIMO understands voice commands, climbs stairs and handles complex tasks such as picking up and opening a glass bottle and pouring the contents into a cup. Eventually, bots will lift paralytics and help them dress and eat.
4. On the farm
7 fields where robots are taking charge
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