Robots to the rescue

August 08, 1999|By Marilyn Geewax

WASHINGTON -- Weren't we supposed to have robots following us around by now, protecting us with their metallic arms and helping with the housework?

Science-fiction writers have fueled our robot fantasies for decades, building up hopes for a mechanical man capable of yelling "Danger! Danger!" in the face of trouble, just like the automaton in the 1960s TV series "Lost in Space."

While all sorts of new technologies have rushed at us in recent years, the robot with retractable arms has yet to appear in our daily lives.

But early in the next century, that may change. Robot experts predict that the combination of cheaper microprocessors and more expensive workers will spur the development of smart robots to replace large numbers of workers, even those who perform the most intimate tasks in workplaces, including hospitals.

The switch from human to mechanical labor began in the 1950s, when primitive robots first began turning up in factories. Today, the typical mechanical "worker" has a fixed arm that can be programmed to do repetitive tasks. In auto assembly plants, for example, tireless steel arms reach out to paint auto bodies or weld parts.

In recent years, a growing number of robots have been stepping off of their fixed bases and going out to do hazardous jobs. Bomb squads now use them to help disarm explosives. Workers removing asbestos from pipes in the Pentagon have employed robots.

For the most part, workers are glad to have robots help with such dangerous jobs. But employers are becoming more interested in getting robots to do service work that is merely unappealing. For example, in this booming economy, it's tough to find people willing to scrub a factory floor at 3 a.m.

At a recent convention of the World Future Society, a non-profit group whose members ponder the future, a session on robots spurred interesting speculation on where the metal androids might turn up in the new century.

Speaking to the gathering here, Joanne Pransky, a marketing representative for Sankyo Robotics, tossed out predictions based on robots now being developed:

As sensors become more powerful, robots dedicated to cleaning will become more commonplace. For example, vacuuming robots will be able to zigzag across rooms without hitting furniture or running over toes.

In hospitals and nursing homes, robots will zoom down the hallways, delivering prescriptions and charts to patients.

"Companion robots" may help elderly people live longer in their own homes. By holding out a helping arm, the robot might help an aged person get out of bed and walk over to the toilet.

Parents might use a robotic day-care worker. With a camera built into its head, the robot could follow around a child and provide updates on play activities and weather conditions.

While the thought of having robots do our dirty work sounds great, an increasingly robotic work force could have a negative impact on society. If robots are busy cleaning our buildings and watching our children, what will happen to the millions of people who do those jobs today? Will welfare reform falter if low-end jobs disappear?

Even white-collar workers should not feel safe from the threat of robots. As robots get smarter and more versatile, they may become better at preparing meals than the best chefs and at flying planes than the best pilots. And perhaps even better at writing than the best journalists.

As they say: "Danger! Danger!"

Marilyn Geewax is a syndicated columnist.

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