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The future of manual labor: no people, just robots?

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Advances in robot technology are leading factories and distributors to use one robot to replace five workers or more.

SmartPlanet is all about innovation that impacts your world.

But innovation can sometimes raise uncomfortable prospects. Take, for instance, innovations in robots that will allow them to do many jobs that humans have long been doing in fields such as manufacturing and distribution.

A new wave of highly skilled robots is already starting to replace workers around the world, at cutting-edge companies like electric car maker Tesla and technology leader Apple, as well as at behind-the-scenes actors such as C&S Wholesale Grocers, a major grocery supplier.

These robots are much more adept than the ones of yesteryear and are already starting to replace humans, The New York Times reports in a long feature.

For instance, while Apple manufacturer Foxconn is continuing to build new factories that will employee people, it is also planning to install more than a million robots within the next few years. The company's chairman, Terry Gou, gave a colorful quote in January to China's Xinhua news agency: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.”

What differentiates these robots

New robots not only improve on previous versions but are also so many leaps and bounds beyond in capability that they can replace more than one worker.

Flexibility

New robots in a Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif., outdo previous ones by being able to perform as many as four functions instead of just one. For instance, they may weld, rivet, bond and install a component.

Tesla can also use the same robots to manufacture different cars, simply by reprogramming them. This concept of a flexible robot could be the new direction for manufacturing in robots.

Reliability

New robots outfitted with electronic "eyes" can also be much faster in distribution scenarios. A new robot being developed by Industrial Perception Inc. uses scoops, suction cups -- and a technology akin to Microsoft's Kinect motion sensing system -- to pick up boxes and drop them onto conveyor belts with a much lower "injury" rate than, say, the tens of thousands of human workers employed by FedEx and UPS who have all probably suffered from a bad back at least once.

Speed

Industrial Perception projects that its robots will also soon be much, much faster. While average human workers move a box every six seconds (and let's ignore the fact that they also get tired while moving boxes that can weigh more than 130 pounds), the company projects that the robot will soon move a box every second.

Precision

Some robots can do things that humans simply would find impossible to do: At a Phillips Electronics factory in the Netherlands, a robot can slip wires into holes almost too small to be seen.

And, did we mention that they can work 365 days a year without even a bathroom break?

How they are beginning to replace humans

Many companies are already beginning to use these highly skilled robots.

  • Earthbound Farms in California has robot arms that put organic lettuce into clamshell containers. They are so fast that each robot replaces two to five workers at the company.
  • Boeing uses giant machines to make its wide-body commercial jets, finding them more precise and safer for workers.
  • Royal Philips Electronics, which manufactures electric shavers more complex to make than smartphones, uses robots encased in glass cages on top of which are perched video cameras. Those "eyes" guide the arms as they "bend wires with millimetric accuracy, set toothpick-thin spindles in tiny holes, grab miniature plastic gears and set them in housings, and snap pieces of plastic into place," according to The Times.
  • At C&S, 168 "rover" robots the size of go-carts race around a warehouse at 25 miles per hour, manipulated wirelessly by a central computer. They can zoom right up to their destination (either a pickup or drop-off spot), grab the item they need and then go to a central chute where all the items are collected. The central computer can pack items in the exact unpacking order they need to be in to go onto the supermarket shelves.

As you can see, with these robots around, there isn't much need for humans. What do you think? Are these robots a promising development that won't threaten humans but create new jobs for them? Or are they a threat?

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via: The New York Times

photo: Tesla Motors assembly line (jurvetson/Flickr)

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure