We’ve seen self-service machines introduced to our supermarkets and robots on our factory floors, and but what’s next for automation and where will we find our current skills outdated?

Robots are primarily applied in fields described as the three Ds - dirty, dangerous or dull. They are also often used in regions that are inaccessible to humans, for example outer space, remote mountainous or desert land areas, and deep undersea.

Because of this, the jobs most at risk from automation are those that are low skill, highly stricter and routine, based on specific rules. It’s unlikely that humans will be replaced by robots for complete tasks, resulting in mass redundancies, however it’s more than likely that robots will assist humans and aid productivity. 

Here are some of the ways in which robots may be taking over the workplace at sometime in the near future:

Drivers

If you haven’t heard automated cars are all the rage, with Google at the forefront of the development of driverless cars. By early 2014 their self-driving car had travelled 100,000 miles on real roads without a crash with only occasional human control. 

With a seat in an automated car you’ll be able to use your time to catch up on your sleep, watch a film or get your emails done for the day. 

Automated taxi pods have already taken to the streets in Milton Keynes, while the government is updating the highway code to take account of driverless cars.

It’s also likely that we’ll see driverless tube trains and other trains in the near future as the skills to drive a train is low, with the Docklands Light Railway having always been driverless. 

Medicine

Some pharmacies already use robots to pick, package and dispense their prescriptions once computers have electronically received orders. During its first phase-in, the robot at the pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) prepared 350,000 doses of medication without error. Furthermore, the robot may be able to do a better job than humans at making sure the prescription a patient is picking up won’t interact with other medications he or she is taking.

Robot “nurses” have been used in the USA for years. These robots carry patient meals, notes, and mail; distribute bed linen; and carry waste and medicine. Because hospital corridors offer structured environments, fetching and carrying in these environments is fairly straightforward to achieve robotically.

At Guy's and St Thomas' robots assist surgeons with keyhole kidney surgery. Speed is a crucial factor in the success of such operations and the robots are able to sew blood vessels connecting donor kidneys far more quickly than humans. Robots can also be more precise, which is important in surgery, for example when removing cancer cells and keeping adjacent healthy cells. 

Robots are increasingly being used in surgery. Image credit: Cmglee/Wikipedia

Space

Because of the danger of humans going into space, robots have already overtaken humans as the top space explorer. They can also help humans with tasks, such as NASA’s Robonaut2, which is equipped with a wide array of sensors and dexterous five fingered hands. It handles menial jobs such as cleaning the spacestation and assisting humans in space operations. One day it may venture outside the station to help spacewalkers make repairs or perform scientific work.

Defense

According the the US Army, robots could replace a quarter of all US combat soldiers by 2030. The robots will be able to do everything from dismantling land mines to engaging in front-line combat. Drones are already being extensively used, and they are highly manoeuvrable whilst being almost invisible to radar, while other machines are increasingly being used in reconnaissance and combat missions.

The MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System) is equipped with a GPS monitor; it can be programmed to differentiate between fire and no-fire zones, to open doors, and even to drag out injured bodies.

Home help

Vacuuming robots have been popular additions to a household for a few years now and we've also ventured into ones that scrub floors, sweep and gutter clean. Robot lawn mowers have also taken off. 

It is likely that as robot costs will get lower and performance will increase with continuing evolution and development we’ll see larger scale robotic commercial floor cleaners in airports and railway terminal concourses as well as in offices.

Although robots don’t seem like the most friendly of creatures, Aeon Co., a major Japanese retailer, introduced a four-foot-tall yellow and white robot at a store in 2008 to babysit children while the parents shopped. Another model is the PaPeRo robot which tells jokes, gives quizzes, and can track kids using a radio-frequency identification chip.

However, it’s unlikely that we’ll find general purpose domestic robots any time soon, as the tasks we want them for, ironing, making beds, climbing stairs etc are all hard problems that would need expensive solutions.

Robots working away in the warehouse. Image credit: Carmenter/Wikipedia

Law

Clients pay millions for attorneys and paralegals to undertake a “doc review” where people search through hundreds of documents looking for mentions of certain items or concepts, and robots can simply do the task better, at a fraction of the time and a fraction of the cost. Robots, unlike humans, also don’t tire of rote (read boring) tasks.

Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, CA has software that can analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000.

Retail

We’ve already seen self-service machines taking over our local supermarketets, but it’s likely that we’ll soon see robots in banks as well. “Personal teller machines” do much of what a human teller can do, and in banks such as the Coastal Federal Credit Union there has been 40% reduction in teller staff.

In the stockroom, robots can be used to move packages around. Amazon’s “robot army”—a fleet of short, bright orange robots on wheels—works in some of its warehouses to move stocked shelves to workers, who then scan them. This robot army makes Amazon’s operations more efficient: workers can scan at least 300 items per hour vs. 100 when the robot army wasn’t in use and will now avoid up to 20 miles of walking each day.

Journalism

Using software developed by Northwestern University, Narrative Science creates machine-generated stories by taking data and turning it into something understandable. One of its customers is the Big Ten Network, which uses the service for baseball and softball coverage. It’s less expensive than having human reporters at each game. After a game, scorekeepers e-mail game data to Narrative Science, which feeds it into a computer and spits out a story in minutes.

Stories that rely heavily on numbers and analysis and are not open to interpretation, such as market reports, are also likely to be given to robots, however if you’re a long-form creative journalist or fiction writer you’ve a better chance of survival as robots are so good at being creative.  

Science chief scientist Kristian Hammond said that in 15 years' time, 90% of news will be written by machines but, he told the BBC, that didn't mean that 90% of journalist jobs would go.

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