A couple of recent news items have me wondering how our children and grandchildren, as well as today's young workers will be affected by the arrival of robots in the workplace. They're coming, and faster than you might imagine.
Toyota is leveraging its expertise with robots to create wearable exoskeletons, which will be available for hospitals and clinics to rent as early as this fall. The hydraulically assisted legs are designed to help rehabilitate patients who are paralyzed from the waist down. The automaker has installed the devices in 23 medical centers throughout Japan. Robotic legs, which weigh only 13 pounds, help patients bend their knees and stretch their legs, and may be worn by nurses and other clinicians as well.
Meanwhile, Toyota is building other robots for use in the health care environment. The same machines that autonomously run to the warehouse to fetch a new automobile engine will be incorporated into Patient Transfer Assist technology -- lifting and carrying patients from one location to another in a hospital, nursing home or clinic. The South Korean automaker Hyundai is creating similar exoskeleton prototypes.
“Collaborative” robots, as researchers dub them, are being programmed with "social intelligence" to work side-by-side with humans. They typically do manufacturing jobs that are being automated for the first time, which results in productivity gains. Incredibly, some machines have sensors that can assess the state of nearby humans. The European Union is funding a test of bracelets for school students that have electrodes to enable robots to know if students are bored, confused or anxious.
We also learned recently that several companies worldwide are developing robots with super sensitive noses that will be able to detect cancer in humans. We've known for some time that dogs can be trained to do just that, with impressive accuracy. It seems that the thousands of organic compounds in our bodies leave a so-called "odorprint," very similar to a fingerprint, that can reveal our age, lifestyle, genetics and a lot about our metabolism. Clinical trials already are underway: A 3,000-subject experiment funded by Britain’s National Health Service will test one device for its ability to diagnose lung cancer. Another 1,400-person trial will test how well it detects colon cancer from urine samples.
All of this means the day is fast approaching when a robot in a physician's office will take a whiff of a patient and give the doctor a list of probable diagnoses, or at least which additional tests to run. And these machines have artificial intelligence, learning from experience. Like human doctors, they get better at diagnosing with each patient they encounter.
Economists from MIT recently told a robotics symposium that robots and computers would be moving in greater mass into the workforce. They predicted that the machines would replace humans in mid-level jobs, such as clerical and call-center positions.
The arrival of these soft-spoken, yet incredibly efficient characters is going to require profound social and personal adjustments from human workers.
Researchers are pleased that workers warm up to the "collaborative" robots, often treating them not as job threats but as assistants or apprentices that can handle simple, often repetitive tasks. They add that working alongside the machines, as partners, seems to change the way humans think about them.
So be prepared to meet some new computerized co-workers in your workplace one day. While they might be extremely intelligent and very productive, they won't offer much in the way of stimulating conversation or personality.
And they probably won't get your jokes.