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Mass Communication-The robot revolution has arrived-B-AIM PICK SELECTS

IF YOU’RE LIKE most people, you’ve probably never met a robot. But you will.

I met one on a windy, bright day last January, on the short-grass prairie near Colorado’s border with Kansas, in the company of a rail-thin 31-year-old from San Francisco named Noah Ready-Campbell. To the south, wind turbines stretched to the horizon in uneven ranks, like a silent army of gleaming three-armed giants. In front of me was a hole that would become the foundation for another one.

A Caterpillar 336 excavator was digging that hole—62 feet in diameter, with walls that slope up at a 34-degree angle, and a floor 10 feet deep and almost perfectly level. The Cat piled the dug-up earth on a spot where it wouldn’t get in the way; it would start a new pile when necessary. Every dip, dig, raise, turn, and drop of the 41-ton machine required firm control and well-tuned judgment. In North America, skilled excavator operators earn as much as $100,000 a year.

The seat in this excavator, though, was empty. The operator lay on the cab’s roof. It had no hands; three snaky black cables linked it directly to the excavator’s control system. It had no eyes or ears either, since it used lasers, GPS, video cameras, and gyroscope-like sensors that estimate an object’s orientation in space to watch over its work. Ready-Campbell, co-founder of a San Francisco company called Built Robotics, clomped across the coarse dirt, climbed onto the excavator, and lifted the lid of a fancy luggage carrier on the roof. Inside was his company’s product—a 200-pound device that does work that once required a human being.

“This is where the AI runs,” he said, pointing into the collection of circuit boards, wires, and metal boxes that made up the machine: Sensors to tell it where it is, cameras to let it see, controllers to send its commands to the excavator, communication devices that allow humans to monitor it, and the processor where its artificial intelligence, or AI, makes the decisions a human driver would. “These control signals get passed down to the computers that usually respond to the joysticks and pedals in the cab.”

When I was a child in the 20th century, hoping to encounter a robot when I grew up, I expected it would look and act human, like C-3PO from Star Wars. Instead, the real robots that were being set up in factories were very different. Today millions of these industrial machines bolt, weld, paint, and do other repetitive, assembly-line tasks. Often fenced off to keep the remaining human workers safe, they are what roboticist Andrea Thomaz at the University of Texas has called “mute and brute” behemoths.

Ready-Campbell’s device isn’t like that (although the Cat did have the words “CAUTION Robotic Equipment Moves Without Warning” stamped on its side). And of course it isn’t like C-3PO, either. It is, instead, a new kind of robot, far from human but still smart, adept, and mobile. Once rare, these devices—designed to “live” and work with people who have never met a robot—are migrating steadily into daily life.

Already, in 2020, robots take inventory and clean floors in Walmart. They shelve goods and fetch them for mailing in warehouses. They cut lettuce and pick apples and even raspberries. They help autistic children socialize and stroke victims regain the use of their limbs. They patrol borders and, in the case of Israel’s Harop drone, attack targets they deem hostile. Robots arrange flowers, perform religious ceremonies, do stand-up comedy, and serve as sexual partners.

New technology lets robots cope with the constant change and irregular shapes that humans encounter at work. Foodly, a collaborative robot (cobot) developed by RT Corporation, uses advanced vision, algorithms, and a grasping hand to place pieces of chicken in a bento box.

And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, replacing people with robots—an idea majorities of people around the world dislike, according to polls—looks medically wise, if not essential. (Read more about the skyrocketing demand for robots during the pandemic.)

Robots now deliver food in Milton Keynes, England, tote supplies in a Dallas hospital, disinfect patients’ rooms in China and Europe, and wander parks in Singapore, nagging pedestrians to maintain social distance.

This past spring, in the middle of a global economic collapse, the robotmakers I’d contacted in 2019, when I started working on this article, said they were getting more, not fewer, inquiries from potential customers. The pandemic has made more people realize that “automation is going to be a part of work,” Ready-Campbell told me in May. “The driver of that had been efficiency and productivity, but now there’s this other layer to it, which is health and safety.”

Even before the COVID crisis added its impetus, technological trends were accelerating the creation of robots that could fan out into our lives. Mechanical parts got lighter, cheaper, and sturdier. Electronics packed more computing power into smaller packages. Breakthroughs let engineers put powerful data-crunching tools into robot bodies. Better digital communications let them keep some robot “brains” in a computer elsewhere—or connect a simple robot to hundreds of others, letting them share a collective intelligence, like a beehive’s.

The workplace of the near future “will be an ecosystem of humans and robots working together to maximize efficiency,” said Ahti Heinla, co-founder of the Skype internet-call platform, now co-founder and chief technology officer of Starship Technologies, whose six-wheeled, self-driving delivery robots are rolling around Milton Keynes and other cities in Europe and the United States.

Robots take inventory and clean at big stores. They patrol borders, perform religious ceremonies, and help autistic children.

“We’ve gotten used to having machine intelligence that we can carry around with us,” said Manuela Veloso, an AI roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. She held up her smartphone. “Now we’re going to have to get used to intelligence that has a body and moves around without us.”

Outside her office, her team’s “cobots”—collaborative robots—roam the halls, guiding visitors and delivering paperwork. They look like iPads on wheeled display stands. But they move about on their own, even taking elevators when they need to (they beep and flash a polite request to nearby humans to push the buttons for them).

“It’s an inevitable fact that we are going to have machines, artificial creatures, that will be a part of our daily life,” Veloso said. “When you start accepting robots around you, like a third species, along with pets and humans, you want to relate to them.”

We’re all going to have to figure out how. “People have to understand that this isn’t science fiction; it’s not something that’s going to happen 20 years from now,” Veloso said. “It’s started to happen.”

The RBO Hand 3 uses compressed air in its silicone fingers. When the robot grasps an apple, a flower, or a human hand, the fingers naturally take the shape of the thing grasped.

In a world that now fears human contact, it won’t be easy to fill jobs caring for children or the elderly. Maja Matarić, a computer scientist and roboticist at the University of Southern California, develops “socially assistive robots”—machines that do social support rather than physical labor. One of her lab’s projects, for example, is a robot coach that leads an elderly user through an exercise routine, then encourages the human to go outside and walk.

“It says, ‘I can’t go outside, but why don’t you take a walk and tell me about it?’” Matarić told me. The robot is a white plastic head, torso, and arms that sits atop a rolling metal stand. But its sensors and software allow it to do some of what a human coach would do—for example, saying, “Bend your left forearm inward a little,” during exercise, or “Nice job!” afterward.

We walked around her lab—a warren of young people in cubicles, working on the technologies that might let a robot help keep the conversation going in a support group, for example, or respond in a way that makes a human feel like the machine is empathizing. I asked Matarić if people ever got creeped out at the thought of a machine watching over Grandpa.

“We’re not replacing caregivers,” she said. “We’re filling a gap. Grown-up children can’t be there with elderly parents. And the people who take care of other people in this country are underpaid and underappreciated. Until that changes, using robots is what we’ll have to do.”

Days after I visited Matarić’s lab, in a different world 20 miles due south of the university, hundreds of longshoremen were marching against robots. This was in the San Pedro section of Los Angeles, where container cranes tower over a landscape of warehouses and docks and modest residential streets. Generations of people in this tight-knit community have worked as longshoremen on the docks. The current generation didn’t like a plan to bring robot cargo handlers to the port’s largest terminal, even though such machines already are common in ports worldwide, including others in the Los Angeles area.

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