7 New Robots Designed to Do Human Jobs

Will robots take all of the jobs? A new report from Pew Research reveals that experts are divided on this topic: some think robots will displace vast numbers of workers by 2025. Others think that yes, robots will indeed take some of our jobs, but we’ll be smart enough to create new forms of work to make up for the losses. Only time will tell exactly what long term impact artificial intelligence will have on the workforce, but already, robots are being designed to do jobs only humans could before.

1. Bellhops

Starting August 20, the Aloft hotel in Cupertino, California will have a new employee. “Boltr” the robotic bellhop will independently roam the hotel’s hallways at a top speed of four mph, delivering items to customers in under three minutes. Starwood insists its robotic room service isn’t meant to replace any human employees. Instead, it is “an enhancement to our customer service,” Brian McGuinness, Starwood Hotels’ senior vice president for its Specialty Select brands, told the New York Times.

2. Tour guides

The Tate Britain museum is letting members of the public enjoy nighttime tours of the artworks without leaving the comfort of their living rooms. From their computer screens, people online can take control one of four robots that will walk around the museum and show off the galleries. Using keyboard buttons, tour members can make the robot move around or look in different directions. Art lovers, fear not: the robots are fitted with sensors that forbid them from getting too close to an artwork.

3. Fast food workers

Would you trust a robot to prepare your burger? A company called Momentum Machines is working on a machine that “does everything employees can do except better.” It is its own assembly line: slicing vegetables, cooking meat, and producing one “gourmet” burger every 10 seconds, all while providing additional sanitation and food safety. The company knows the robot will put line cooks out of work; in fact, this seems to be the goal. “The labor savings allow a restaurant to spend twice as much on high quality ingredients,” the company’s website says. To help displaced employees, Momentum Machines wants to offer them “discounted technical training” to essentially help them become technicians that maintain the robots that just took their jobs.

4. Government job screeners

If you want to work for the government, your first step may soon be enduring a long list of questions from a computer-generated interviewer. To speed the process of handing out security clearances, the National Center for Credibility Assessment is developing an avatar that would interview applicants about their past (drug use, health issues, etc). The goal of outsourcing this stuff to a machine is to save the government time and money, and an initial study found that the robots made interviewees more likely to open up about their history. The robots could also help solve a problem of gender and cultural bias in government jobs.

5. Farmers

An EU project called “Crops” is creating smart robots for crop and forestry management. Developed so far: a sweet pepper-picking robot, an apple harvesting robot, and crop-spraying robots. And for the livestock? A farm in Massachusetts uses a robot to milk its dairy cows. 

6. Librarians

Sydney’s University of Technology has a vast underground library where 325,000 books are stored. When a student wants a book, robots find it for them. The librarians actually seem quite pleased with the innovation, which they’ve dubbed the “bookBot.” The books selected for underground storage were the library’s least-read and were gathering dust and taking up valuable shelf real estate. Now they’re stored in clean galvanised steel bins, safe and secure and available with the touch of a button.

7. Pharmacists

Two hospitals at the University of California, San Francisco no longer have humans manning their pharmacies. Instead, robots receive medication orders and retrieve and package the doses. Nervous about letting a machine dole out powerful pills? At launch in 2011, the university boasted that the robots had prepared more than 350,000 doses so far without a single problem.

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Popcorn Might Be the Cheap, Biodegradable Robot Power Source of the Future
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If you've ever put a flat bag of kernels into the microwave and pulled out a full bag of fluffy popcorn two minutes later, you've witnessed a fascinating bit of food chemistry at work. Now, IEEE Spectrum reports that scientists are looking into applying the unique properties of popcorn to robotics.

For their study, presented at this year's IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, Cornell scientists stuffed the movable parts of a robot (a.k.a. the actuators) with unpopped kernels of corn. Usually actuators are powered by air, hydraulics, or electric currents, but as the researchers found, popcorn works as a cheap single-use alternative.

When heat is applied to popcorn kernels, the water trapped inside them turns to steam, creating enough pressure to peel back the tough exterior and release the starchy endosperm. A sudden drop in pressure causes the endosperm to quickly expand, while the cool outside air solidifies it.

The results can be dramatic: When popping extra small white kernels, the cheapest popcorn tested, researchers saw them expand to 15.7 times their original size. Inside a soft robot, this amounts to building interior pressure that moves the actuator one way or another.

A similar effect can be achieved using air, and unlike popcorn, air can be pumped more than once. But popcorn does offer some big advantages: Using popcorn and heat is cheaper than building air pumps, plus popcorn is biodegradable. For that reason, the researchers present it as an option for robots that are designed to be used once and decompose in the environments they're left in.

You can get an idea of how a popcorn-powered robot works in the video below.

[h/t IEEE Spectrum]

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Disney Parks May Soon Have Robotic Stunt People
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Animatronics are a staple of any Disney park, but as the company introduces more characters into the fold—like heroes from Star Wars, Marvel, and Avatar—the bar is being raised on audience expectations. On the screen, these characters defy gravity and pull off death-defying stunts, yet at the Disney parks, they’re still relying on fairly static animatronic models for their live shows and attractions. As Tech Crunch details, though, the gap between what the heroes do on film and in the park may be closing.

This development is all thanks to Disney’s R&D department, where Imagineers are working on next generation animatronics that can pull off aerial stunts like you’d see in any of the studio’s blockbuster films. The project is called Stuntronics, and its goal is to create animatronic stunt "heroes" that can replace a more static model in the middle of a Disney park show when the scene requires some high-energy action to take place. It's similar to the flesh and blood or CGI stunt people that movies have been using for decades.

In a video demonstrating their progress, a robot model is shown leaping from a cable to do backflips, double backflips, and other heroic landings. It’s something straight out of a Spider-Man movie and is years ahead of any animatronic character currently at the park.

Tony Dohi, principal R&D Imagineer at Disney, told Tech Crunch that the idea for this type of animatronic came about because they realized there was a “disconnect” between the exhibits at the park and what people see on film, so swapping in advanced animatronics for complex action scenes would go a long way toward making Disney’s parks feel more authentic to their properties. The Na’vi Shaman from the Avatar exhibit shows that Disney can get their animatronics to emote; this next step will put them into action.

According to Tech Crunch, right now the stunt robots are realized with the help of an “on-board accelerometer and gyroscope arrays supported by laser range finding.” They are autonomous and self-correct their aerial stunts to hit their marks. Though the model used in the video is just a generic mockup, it’s not hard to see how the Imagineers at Disney can easily turn it into any number of heroes from Marvel or Star Wars.

Stuntronics is just one of the advancements happening with robotics at Disney. Tech Crunch also detailed the Vyloo, which are a trio of autonomous bird-like robots in the park that react to guest movements. They can be seen in the Collector's Fortress in the Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! attraction at Disneyland in California.

The Stuntronics project is still in the R&D phase with no practical application in place just yet. But if this technology does progress the way the Imagineers are hoping, the blockbuster action of Star Wars, Marvel, and The Incredibles won’t just be exclusive to the movies anymore.

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