19 jobs for 'bots (and why that's not such a bad thing)
Real-life robotics today transcend mechanical form and exist in software-guided tools that can automate work and change the outlook for many different fields.
A McKinsey Global Institute Report suggests that machine learning and natural-user interfaces (such as speech recognition) will transform knowledge work, helping analyze, evaluate and solve problems at unprecedented speed and scale.
And here's the exciting part: the report predicts that, by 2025, “productivity gains of 40 to 50 percent could be achieved … which would lead to economic impact of $1.7 trillion to $2.2 trillion per year."
But with all this, we've all heard the forecasts about robots coming to take all our jobs. Actually, there are reasons to be optimistic. 'Bots can take away a lot of our drudge work, allowing us to automate routine tasks and make us all faster, better and even more intelligent.
This great new kind of collaboration – robots working together with people – holds promise in the evolution of the global economy.
Here are 20 ways robotic innovations unfolding in ways that may amaze you, and a peek at how society can benefit.
1. Robotic pharmacist
The University of California, San Francisco has developed an automated hospital pharmacy that dispenses medication automatically. Since 2011, it has delivered 350,000 oral and injectable medicines without error. This is a classic example of automation relieving humans of detail-focused drudgery, at scale and with life-or-death precision. It rigorously controls the whole process from manufacture to bedside, and eliminates human error from “pill-picking." And that allows pharmacists to focus on patient counseling, rather than getting practice at counting.
2. Japan's robot hotel
Japan's Henn-na Hotel is entirely automated, from the robot dinosaur check-in to the facial-recognition key system and the banks of vending machines that replace the dining room. Japan is at the forefront of automation, with 250,000 industrial robots, the highest number in the world. The number is expected to increase to a million over the next 15 years. But it does still seem that human interaction is essential. “It was interesting at first," says one guest, “but then it got a little lonely because there were no staff." Hideo Sadawe, the CEO of Huisten Bosch, which owns the Henn-na hotel, says, “Humans will focus on more creative and artistic work, so they won't lose their jobs." He even predicts that by 2025, these 'bot-driven hotels will spread all over the world.
3. Digital nursing
No, we're not talking about robots at your bedside. More like a robotic digital assistant. The health care field is known for intense record-keeping requirements – so much so, that medical professionals spend more time reviewing records than on health care. But what if, as soon as a nurse enters the room, their digital tag identifies them and the relevant patient details are displayed on their handheld device? The medical field is experimenting with software that collects and organizes patient information on one touch screen. With nurses often spending only 20 percent of their time on patients, automation can free them up to focus on front-line care.
4. Robotic process automation
Not all robotics involves robots. Sometimes, automation software handles high-volume, repetitive tasks, freeing people up to focus on more demanding work. Xerox is a leader in robotic process automation – essentially a whole range of virtual workforces – to help organizations work faster, better and more efficiently. For example, RPA 'bots can analyze files, read spreadsheets or emails, route information and take appropriate action. It can also automate and improve business-process workflow by, for example, finding and organizing the correct information for agents in call centers, or for data analysts in the finance department. Adaptive screens mean that agents are always presented with the right information at the right time. These software 'bots can also help with training and on-boarding new staff, reducing costs and helping deliver better service.
5. Virtual customer service agents
Automation and artificial intelligence have made huge advances in customer service over the last few years. Virtual agents (including the ones we've developed) are a new generation of self-service customer-care tools that improve continuously, ensuring each interaction is better than the last. They learn from human interactions, discovering solutions faster while automating routine tasks. They aggregate customer information from a wide variety of sources to personalize service. And in the future, they'll detect a customer's tone of voice and adjust their responses for greater levels of empathy. All of this frees agents from repetitive work to let them do more interesting, high-value activities, including helping to train and improve the virtual agents.
6. Self-flying planes
Here's a question for you: If we can remote-control drones, why can't commercial aircraft fly themselves from takeoff to touchdown? Actually, they're pretty close already. In fact, research by Duke University's Humans and Autonomy Lab showed that Boeing pilots spend just seven minutes handling controls and Airbus pilots less than half of that. Pilotless planes are already poised for takeoff, and an unmanned Jetstream aircraft has been tested in the U.K. F-18s land automatically on aircraft carriers, and at certain flight levels, automation is obligatory. But what it really comes down to is public acceptance. Even if complete automation is possible, passengers probably do need the reassurance that a pilot is still in control – if only remotely.
7. Self-driving cars
Robots are great at routine, repetitive tasks that involve rapid processing, like driving. Unlike humans, they don't get sleepy or distracted. Google's self-driving cars may have had several minor incidents, but those attributed to other drivers. Safety concerns are always top of mind when it comes to self-driving cars, but the bottom line is that they don't need to be perfect. They just need to be better than human drivers. Highway crashes kill 40,000 people a year in the United States alone.
8. Driverless trains
The same principle applies to trains as planes, though people are less fearful when it comes to earthbound journeys. Line 14 of the Paris metro is fully automated, with no onboard staff. Known as the “meteor" (from MÉtro Est Ouest Rapide), it lives up to its name and matches speed with safety. London's Docklands Light Railway launched as a driverless system, but then put guards on trains to reassure people. San Francisco's BART system did the same back in 1972, when automation was still in its infancy. The message is clear: Automation can do the job – but many of us still prefer that humans control of high-risk activities.
9. Digital barista
Robots are even moving into jobs that are as much art as science. Briggo has developed a network of automated coffee kiosks that deliver perfectly brewed coffee in 15 to 30 seconds and an espresso in around two minutes. You can create an account online, store your preferences and customize your drink. Visit any location with a Briggo machine, and your favorite coffee is delivered automatically. Too impersonal for your tastes? Well, it may not be for every visit, but when you just need to grab and go, a robot might just be as good as a human barista (but faster.)
10. Automated passport control
Some things, technology just does better. It never gets tired or distracted, and is just as accurate at the beginning and end of a long shift. Take passport control. While the vast majority of passengers are not "persons of interest," processing them takes up huge amounts of time. E-passports now allow automated passport control in the United States, the UK and many other countries around the world. Biometric data allows passengers to be identified with greater levels of accuracy than humans can achieve. The technology is faster and more reliable, and keeps us all safer. It frees up staff to spend more time on more serious threats.
11. Automatic translation
Instant, automated translation is now the norm, and it's said that Google translates more words in one minute than all human translators in a whole year. Skype Translator now allows real-time translation of video calls. In a world where clients want cheaper, faster translation, technology is a must for professional translators too, who regularly use machine translation tools to do a first pass. Automated translation is not perfect, often misunderstanding intent, being thrown by colloquialisms, or providing word-for-word translation. But it's getting there. It'll improve over time with Natural Language Processing and machine learning technology, and will become better at inferring meaning and learning from past experiences, just as virtual agents do. And higher-level translation work, with layers of meaning and subtlety, will continue to be handled by skilled professional translators, often aided by smart technologies.
12. Automatic report writing
Automatic writing may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but actually it's already here – though with limited application. Quill is a report-writing tool that uses natural language technology to write plain English reports for specific audiences. Using artificial intelligence, it analyzes facts and decides what's interesting to the audience. Business rules help it identify trends and relationships. Quill "assembles a narrative that is indistinguishable from a human-written one," say its creators. Yet what we're talking about here is writing that is repetitive and rule-based, and follows a pre-set formula. Sports journalism — reporting the results of games — is a primary example. Some of these reports might give you a sense of déjà vu, thanks to automated reporting. Once you move beyond pattern-based numbers and facts, the technology is still quite limited. But it's getting better all the time.
13. Legal work
No domain is immune from automation. Much legal work consists of discovery, which is hugely time- and resource-intensive. Which is why it's already handled by 'bots in many law firms. Software can go through millions of e-mails, memos and documents in hours, not weeks. Electronic discovery software means huge labor cost savings, increased accuracy, and high-volume work handled with speed and ease. It's scalable, repeatable and highly efficient. This is automation at its best, relieving people of the arduous tasks while letting them focus on their strengths.
14. Amazon's “robot army"
Speaking of donkey work, Amazon now has 15,000 robots to help it fulfill orders faster. These robots have cut total order processing time from 1.5 hours to under 15 minutes. They can lift up to 750 pounds, and reach high shelves that Amazon's human workforce would struggle to get to. Amazon says automation helps associates do their job better, and deliver customers' orders faster with less wear and tear. Human workers now walk up to 20 miles less a day. The company is making big cost and efficiency savings, including a 50 percent increase in products in the same space. And with Amazon Prime Air drones promising to deliver packages in under 30 minutes, automation is in this area is set to continue.
15. Robot security guard
Robot bomb disposal has been around for over 40 years, and a robot army may be just around the corner. So it was only a matter of time before private security was automated too. K5 from Knightscope may be a sign of things to come. It's a 300-pound robot that promises to predict and prevent crime. K5 can see, hear, feel and smell, and send back reports to a control center 24/7. It uses sensors, predictive analytics and thermal imaging to do the job, can run 300 license plates a minute against national databases and provides 360-degree video. Acting as smart "eyes and ears," the simple presence of K5 may well be a deterrent. Will it replace humans? Not entirely. They'll focus on higher-level tasks, applying intelligence, interpreting data, making connections and reacting to highly volatile situations.
16. The automated college professor
Gone are the days when you had tens or hundreds in your class if you were a professor. In the era of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) you can have 100,000 students or more enrolled on a course. While multiple-choice and yes/no questions can he handled automatically, free-text answers can prove a huge challenge. Professors simply don't have the time or bandwidth to correct manually. And so automated essay scoring will become the norm, using the same Natural-Language Processing we saw with translation and report-writing. Calibrated peer review will also play an increasing role in handling large volumes of written work. All of this automation scales massively and effortlessly. But it still requires human intelligence, input, training, and review.
17. Home automation
Sometimes, automation is not a need-to-have, but a nice-to-have. Like a warm, well‑lit house to come home to, with dinner already cooking. Apple's HomeKit promises "smart products made even smarter together." You can remotely control your blinds, thermostat, lights and doors. It's voice-activated ("set the Tahoe house to 72 degrees," "turn on the printer in the office") but can also respond to conditions, using location and motion sensors to activate appliances and lights. The idea is that eventually, it'll be an entire ecosystem of devices carrying the logo "Works with Apple HomeKit." This smart technology is getting smarter all the time, but it can still go wrong. And convenience can rapidly turn to inconvenience, as it did when the Nest thermostat malfunctioned, leaving users out in the cold.
18. The robot bartender
At times, automation is just about doing it because you can. And because it's a whole lot of fun. The Makr Shakr bar system will mix a mean martini with a "splash of robotics." It combines two robots, 30 spirits and four actions (muddle, stir, shake and strain) to deliver an impressive 120 drinks an hour using six magnetic conveyors. The accompanying app allows you to "co-create" cocktails with your friends and even share them on social networks. But one thing the robot bartender can't do: Give heartfelt advice to the broken-hearted.
19. Robot-assisted surgery
Robot‑assisted surgery has been around in one form or another since 1985. The surgeon still uses hand controls to operate the robo-surgeon's arms, and it works best with small incisions and minimally-invasive procedures. Technology such as the Da Vinci Robotic Surgical System is capable of incredible precision, as the demonstration of stitching a grape back together shows. This is yet another example of technology not completely automating complex procedures, but rather, assisting and augmenting human capabilities.
A bright new (automated) future
Some of the robots listed here may sound a bit silly. Others are clearly important advances that promise significant benefits.
But they're all examples of an undeniable trend: robotic innovations and artificial intelligence are making inroads in every part of our lives and they're doing it by specializing in the specific areas in which computers excel.
They're also doing it in concert with humans. The most exciting new applications involve people and bots working together in streamlined, automated processes that lead to better, faster, smarter outcomes.
That's an exciting prospect.