But wait! They are already here and in record numbers. Robots are transforming everything from manufacturing to how we entertain. According to the International Federation of Robotics industrial robot sales has been growing annually for the last several years at over 17% while personal service robots have exceed annual growth sales of over 30%. The average automobile assembly plant currently has about 1 robot per 3 human workers but the robots account for over half of the manufacturing. In manufacturing robots handle heavy lifting and moving, precision painting, fitting, welding and inspection—freeing up humans to use their brains and dexterity to be more productive. But for all the growth in robotic manufacturing, the biggest frontier for robots is in personal service and general service such as search and rescue and agriculture.
The first to use computers to gain productivity were corporations that could afford the initial multimillion dollar investment in the machines and supporting equipment not to mention the human cost to run and maintain them. In the early 1980s when personal computers arrived at a cost that individuals could afford then the explosion in computer use occurred. Robots are following the same path. Personal robots that vacuum and clean are everywhere as well as robots that entertain as toys and surrogate pets. Service robots that search in dangerous areas including nuclear facilities help save lives and perform work that humans simply can’t do. Robotic milking systems are the fastest growing area in agriculture in addition to robots that handle livestock in more humane ways and monitor their health 24/7.
Robots as a group—manufacturing and service continue to be one of the fastest growing areas of the U.S. economy, but get ready for the next surge in robots—fine-tuned dexterity and augmented human capacity. In 2016 a robot capable of threading a needle and handling an egg was announced to the world. This will usher in whole new uses for robots in health care and any task that requires exceptional dexterity—think harvesting ripe apples and clusters of grapes. Exoskeletons for humans to increase their strength and perform extraordinary tasks are being developed for military applications as well as dangerous jobs in policing, firefighting and logging.
The cry from Luddites is that robots are taking jobs from humans. But robots actually create more jobs than they destroy and elevate humans in the process—just as all of technology has done throughout the ages. Fewer people are needed to grow the food for us to eat, so people can become poets. The challenge for us all is to help transform our educational system to be agile and adaptable so that humans can be continuous learners.