What Do Government Robots Mean for the Future of Humans at Work?

The professionals involved in the creation of these machines have ambitious plans for them.

by / April 15, 2014

The world hasn’t created walking, talking humanoid robots yet — that the public knows of, that is — but the government’s zeal for robotic development seems poised to change how society works and lives.

Notable developments form the past few years include the United States’ $10.9 million contract to develop two-legged humanoid robots for disaster evacuation operations, and the DARPA Robotics Challenge, which is a competition for engineers to develop humanoid robots to perform disaster management operations, a challenge with phases that will run into 2015.

News like this indicates that federal agencies have targeted goals in mind. The BBC reported on Robonaut, NASA’s surgery-performing automaton designed to operate on astronauts in space, and the Navy has partnered with colleges in the DARPA competition to develop the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR), a robot that will climb stairs and open hatches to rescue victims in fires and other dangerous scenarios that are too harsh for human first responders.

The professionals involved in these machines’ creation have ambitious plans for them.

Dr. Zsolt Garami, the physician who’s been training Robonaut in patient care, told the BBC that the robot will be deployed in space and other desolate places. “Our plan is to use Robonaut as a telemedicine doctor in remote areas,” he said.

But they acknowledge that there are challenges ahead. Michael Gennert, director of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, one of the groups behind SAFFiR’s development, acknowledged the challenges involve in teaching a robot how to perform rescue operations.

SAFFiR operators will use software to issue the machine commands remotely, like picking up a hose, and then the robot will have to understand — on its own — how to recognize a hose on sight, pick it up and operate it.

“There’s an awful lot of stuff to do,” Gennert told the Boston Globe. “It’s not going to be easy or cheap.”

The government’s actions may make human relief and aid more efficient, but could they eventually eliminate the human worker?

Forbes’ Jacob Morgan argued in an editorial that many of the jobs robots may take weren’t designed for people to perform in the first place. 

The traditional working world ideology goes against a positive human experience, as it is. Most organizations are modeled after the military where people act and dress the same and only have access to relevant information to get their jobs done. They’re not paid to think; they’re paid to work and follow orders, which is drone-like.

“Much of this mentality has carried over into present day working environments, which explains why so many people are disengaged at work and don’t like their jobs,” Morgan wrote.

Robotic deployment is a means of automation that frees people from drudgery and allows them to focus on creative innovation and more “human” environments where managers foster collective intelligence, shared ideas and facilitate flexible work environments, none of which are thought of as “robotic” scenarios.

But the future of the robotic workforce is still being written, and their capability to understand complex, typically “human” scenarios will only increase as decades go by.

Microsoft, for example, is developing robots and virtual assistants programmed to analyze space optics, the geometry of people’s comings and goings, facial expressions, and the rhythms of human conversations to make decisions on how to interact with them.

A Microsoft blog quoted company research scientist Eric Horvitz, where he stated Microsoft’s goal of creating sophisticated robotic systems. 

“We’re addressing core challenges in artificial intelligence,” he said. “The goal is to build systems that can coordinate and collaborate with people in a fluid, natural manner.”

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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