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Artist concept of Human/Robot partnerships.

Almost every day, somewhere in the world new robotic applications are developed and implemented. Time saving, labor saving, money saving and essentially tireless, robotics are increasingly augmenting or replacing human skills and functions. In his first book, Player Piano, author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. dramatically illustrated the essential destruction of human society as high technology, automation (including robotics) replaces the human worker. He explains his motivation for the book in a 1973 interview in which he is quoted (Seed, David. “Mankind vs. Machines”) as stating:

Player Piano was my response to the implications of having everything run by little boxes. The idea of doing that, you know, made sense, perfect sense. To have a little clicking box make all the decisions wasn’t a vicious thing to do. But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs.”

As we look at the rapid developments in automation and robotics we cannot help but consider Vonnegut’s views as prophetic. So will we be reduced to essentially almost lifeless flacids as remnants of a once masterful and articulate human species? It could happen, but unlikely. Regardless the ongoing growth of theses technologies does introduce new challenges to the future of Homo sapiens.

Robot Workers: This category, of course, is currently the most prominent application of robotics. A significant area where robotics and automation are employed is the automobile industry. Replacing many workers doing repetitive but highly critical assembly jobs, robotics have increased both the productivity and reliability while lowering the cost per part or per assembly operation. So where did all those replaced workers go? Right now they face an ever-growing global unemployment population. Are there rays of hope? Yes!

1. Human<>Robot partnerships

There are a great many possible work environments where a partnership between robotics and humans would be highly beneficial. The one that commands the most public interest is a partnership involved in space exploration. Additionally, the (pdf) study linked to this sub-topic title illustrates an array of possible cooperative human/robot operations. A fictional example of cooperation between human astronauts and robonauts can be perused here.

2. Infrastructure Expansion and Upkeep

As outlined in President Barack Obama’s jobs plan, one of the key solutions to the current unemployment crisis as well as a resource for displaced workers is a government funded program that addresses expansions, repairs and upkeep of the nations infrastructure (airports, bridges, railways and roads, etc). Properly managed and funded this could be an ongoing Federal program that will provide opportunities for both skilled and semi-skilled workers. In many cases job training would be provided which would increase a worker’s employability status.  The key factor, is a unified political support for such a program that survives the regular transitions in government leadership and representation.

3. Earth Protective Services

Earth Protective Services is a widely based environmentally focused program that requires all skill levels. Unemployed or displaced workers in this area include the semi-skilled to the highly professional sci-tech specialists that jointly work to address major challenges to our global environmental health. This, of course, directly relates to the overall health of all life forms on the planet. As such these services directly support and enhance all of our other economic endeavors. The title to this sub-section includes a link to a more detailed presentation of this concept.

The above three examples are not all inclusive, and we can definitely produce other promising opportunities that both benefit the worker and humankind in general. A key element that must happen is a structural change to our society that provides a more equal distribution of wealth and opportunity. This will require both a dedicated political effort and a social one that reaches across the current socio-economic boundaries that dramatically isolate large segments of human populations. We can certainly accomplish this as it is a long standing pillar of democracy. The challenge however, is will we do it?

The following video is an example of a more light-hearted application of robotics, but it also clearly shows the extent of capabilities with which we can endow our fellow robo-citizens.