Will Companies Use Robots to Do Dirty Work -- and More?

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In a movie scene so classic that it's become a cliche, Walter Brooke told Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate" that the key to his future was in "plastics." A flurry of press coverage has us wondering, would the word "robots" replace "plastics" if that scene were staged today?


At the very least, it seems as if robots are becoming sophisticated -- and inexpensive -- enough to consider using them to supplement human work forces for some tasks.


You can bet if there's a market for a new technology, Microsoft will be all over it. Thanks to IT Business Edge blogger Loraine Lawson for her post proving it, Forget PCs: Microsoft Has Eyes - and OS - on Robots, that discusses Microsoft's collaboration with Japanese robot maker Tmsuk to create a standard operating system for robots.


Loraine also recently wrote about robots working at two Staples warehouses that are faster and more efficient than previous order fulfillment systems, including those using a conveyor belt.


A doctor in Baltimore uses a robot to supplement his medical rounds, which has resulted in shorter hospital stays for about a quarter of the patients seen by the robot, writes IT Business Edge blogger Susan Hall. Robots are also employed by other medical facilities, including Johns Hopkins.


Wait, there's more. Proving that robots are often far less error prone than humans, a Courier Post Online story describes a robot being used by a New Jersey hospital to dispense medication to patients. It automatically restocks itself, eliminates outdated and overstock medications and, perhaps most important, had a 100 percent accuracy rate in its first four months of use.


There's also a market for robots equipped to do tasks that are too dangerous for humans, such as handling radioactive materials. This CNET video introduces a California startup called Anybots that creates robots designed for these kinds of chores. (We think they'd be more likely to convince companies to send robots to do their dirty work if the robots didn't have faces, as seen in the video, but we digress.) Robots (without faces) already pull similar duty for the U.S. military in Iraq, as described in this MSNBC story.


In Japan, which seems to hold a special fondness for robots, companies are experimenting with using them as "receptionists" and construction workers, reports The Guardian.


The article presents a number of interesting anti- and pro-robot viewpoints. While some experts worry about robots displacing humans, others are quick to debunk such ideas. Says the managing director of a UK firm called R U Robots:

Mass unemployment? They said same about the computer, how we would all have nothing but leisure time as computers would be doing our jobs for us. And this obviously is not the case. The fact is, robots will be able to do the repetitive boring jobs that we loathe first. The food industry, for example, has masses of people doing these very tedious and boring jobs. Robots could easily do that work.

So can companies forget about "human" resources for their automated workers? Not so fast, writes IT Business Edge blogger Ken-Hardin, citing a Dutch researcher's contention that people will forge emotional bonds with robots. He wonders:

And how will companies legislate behavior between human-like robots and people on production lines? "Don't curse at the tolerance checker" seems like an odd addendum to an employee handbook.