When I was a young lad back in the 1960s, fear of robots and automation in general was widespread and had achieved almost mythic status among American workers, who were at the time the highest paid in the world; this despite the fact that the only real industrial robot was Unimate, inventor George Devol and entrepreneur Joseph Engelberger’s pricey contraption, essentially a 2,700-pound digitally-controlled pivotable box with a hydraulic robot arm and wrist.
Unimate made its debut at Chicago’s Cow Palace in 1961 and, despite some initial interest by Ford Motor Co., the first Unimate went into operation that year at GM’s diecasting plant in Trenton New Jersey.
Unimate’s manufacturer, Unimation, soon found competition from Cincinnati Milacron of Ohio and then a whole host of Japanese companies in the 1970s.
Even so, there was little to fear from robots, automation, and artificial intelligence throughout the 20th century. The idea of robots and computers replacing jobs en masse in society was relegated to works of dystopian fantasy literature. In those pages we learned that, “sometime in the 21st Century” there dwelt menacing mechanical monsters that could wreak havoc and devastation on humankind (or at least put us all out of a job).
They say that paranoids fear everyone except those people really out to get them.
Well, folks, it’s now the 21st century, and, lo and behold, the apparently apathetic public doesn’t seem to be up in arms over the latest impressive robot/AI developments, to wit,
my fellow intrepid journalists, a vainglorious but notoriously ill-paid lot reviled by politicians of all parties and shunned by celebrities great and small, can now look with apprehension on the coming of software by the company Narrative Science capable of writing articles and automating journalism — though perhaps its greatest claim to fame until now has been writing revenue projection reports for Forbes.
At some automated factories, the first time a human being sees a product is at the quality control stage, before it’s shipped out.
IPsoft’s Eliza computer program functions as a courteous virtual service desk employee, handling 100,000 emails and 67,000 phone calls a day. Eliza’s specialty is diagnosing IT problems, though it can also make small talk in nine languages.
Dominican former attorney, Paola Santana, and her company, Matternet, believe that their unmanned aerial drones can replace the postal system, delivering packages, medical and food supplies in any environment and over extreme landscapes, such as roadless areas.
Moreover, Amazon’s projected “Prime Air” drones also obviate the need for delivery services entirely, delivering packages to Amazon customers’ within 30 minutes.
Babysitting robots, predicted in the fanciful stories of Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury, appeared in 2008 when Japanese retailer Aeon Co. Ltd began selling one made by another Japanese firm, Tmsuk, Co. Ltd.
Google, Audi and BMW have all demonstrated autonomous vehicles which could conceivably eliminate the tens of thousands of deaths that plague U.S. highways annually.
Can automated taxis and truck deliveries to stores be far behind?
Visit a bar and you might have a drink mixed to your liking by the three-armed robot mixologist Makr Shakr, a collaboration among the MIT Senseable City Lab, Coca-Cola and Bacardi Rum. (Sorry, the drinks don’t come with any free robot bartender psychotherapy.)
Even that last great refuge of the otherwise unemployed, the Fast Food industry, is about to be inundated with robots. Panera Bread is spending $42 million to replace human cashiers with ordering and payment kiosks by 2016. Meanwhile, Momentum Machines has demonstrated a robot that can cook 360 made-to-order hamburgers per hour, compete with sliced tomatoes, pickles, etc., and conveniently bagged. (These employees won’t demand a $15 an hour minimum wage, either.)
At the other end of the pay scale, your friendly local pharmacist may be replaced by something similar to the ROBOT-Rx automated medication dispensing system made by medical technologies supplier McKesson Corp. Already in use by over a third of medium and large hospitals in the America, ROBOT-Rx machines fill over 350 million medication doses each year with 99.9 percent accuracy, reducing pharmacist checking labor by 90 percent and expired medication costs by 54 percent.
Clearly, robots and artificial intelligence are potentially capable of performing jobs across the entire worker spectrum.
It was bad enough when the industrial forces-that-be moved sources of production around the world to whatever country had the lowest labor costs at any particular time, spreading the wealth among the world’s underpaid workers (a phenomenon that yours truly jokingly calls, “communism for poor people”).
And now we can all dolefully ponder a future of 100 percent unemployment where governments print up bales of money and distribute them to the rest of us benighted natives in an effort to maintain a human consumer economy in a fully automated world.
Richard Grigonis is an internationally known technology editor and writer. He was executive editor of Technology Management Corporation’s IP Communications Group of magazines from 2006 to 2009. The author of five books on computers and telecom, including the highly influential Computer Telephony Encyclopedia (2000), he was the chief technical editor of Harry Newton's Computer Telephony magazine (later retitled Communications Convergence after its acquisition by Miller Freeman/CMP Media) from its first year of operation in 1994 until 2003. Read more reports from Richard Grigonis — Click Here Now
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