Robots

Robots will move from industrial and factory settings, where they were first introduced in the early 1960s, to more everyday work, educational, research, and living spaces. These collaborative robots will increasingly perform repetitive tasks and work alongside humans.

How It’s Developing

Robots were initially introduced into industrial and factory settings to accomplish tasks that were deemed too dangerous or difficult for humans (Unimate, acquired by GM in 1961, was used to lift hot metal). The declining cost of sensors and computing power that allow robots to react quickly and intelligently will help robots become safer and take on greater roles alongside humans. [1]  
 
Robots in the workplace will be Collaborative Robots (or CoBots), described by the National Science Foundation as “help on wheels” and primarily focused on gofer activities – couriers and messengers that can operate in programmable environments. [2] Their navigation of environments will be aided by the increasing connectivity of devices and things (Internet of Things) that will equip objects with computing and radio devices that might be detectable and distinguishable for mobile robots. [3]  
 
Advocates contend that as robots become safer and assume more responsibilities alongside humans, humans will be free to focus on higher level and creative tasks, including overseeing robots, identifying innovation opportunities, and performing more involved tasks too complicated for robots. [4
      
Despite great interest and enthusiasm, robots and automation may be slow to arrive in the workplace (and replace a significant amount of work) as there continue to be technological, security, policy, and economic hurdles that stand in the way of widespread adoption . [5] Safety may be among the primary hurdles, especially for adoption by larger companies and organizations. The International Standards Organization (ISO) is expected to release an update to robot safety standards, including coverage of collaborative robots, that will likely include limits on the potential damage robots could accidentally inflict on humans. [6]   

Why It Matters

Several libraries have introduced robots into their community technology offerings. As stated by Maxine Bleiweis, executive director of the Westport Library, "Robotics is the next disruptive technology coming into our lives and we felt it was important to make it accessible to people so they could learn about it…From an economic-development perspective and job- and career-development perspective, it's so important." [7]
 
Even as advocates promote the view that robots will improve humans’ experiences in the workplace, there is still concern that robots will be used to displace human workers, reducing salary and benefit expenses and potentially increasing productivity. [8] Libraries and other educational institutions may have a role in developing new skills for displaced workers and/or improving skills so that workers can transition to new roles and responsibilities in environments where robots assume significant portions of the workflow.
 
The introduction of robots will bring with it significant policy implications, including security, privacy, liability and intellectual property issues, that may require government regulation or direction. [9]  
 
As populations age, a trend that may significantly affect the United States, Europe, and Asia, a shortage of working-age people may necessitate robots in order to provide services and products to a growing population. [10]

Notes and Resources

[1] “Human-Robot Collaboration will Alter Manufacturing.”  Will Knight. MIT Technology Review. September 16, 2014. Available at http://www.technologyreview.com/news/530696/how-human-robot-teamwork-wil...
 
[2] “New CoBots are ‘Help on Wheels.’” Miles O’Brien and Kate Tobin. Science Nation. December 16, 2013. Available at http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/science_nation/collaborativerobo... 
 
[3] “Tags Let Robot Find Things Around the House.” Jason Maderer. Futurity. September 24, 2014. Available at http://www.futurity.org/tags-let-robot-find-things-around-house-770972/
 
[4] “Can Workplace Robots Get Along with the Humans They’re Replacing?” Kevin Roose. New York Magazine. October 3, 2014. Available at http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/10/are-workplace-robots-your-f...
 
[5] “What will the Economy Look Like When Robots Take Your Job?” Thor Benson. Fast Company. May 28, 2014. Available at http://www.fastcoexist.com/3030837/futurist-forum/what-will-the-economy-... 
 
[6] "Should Industrial Robots Be Able to Hurt Their Human Coworkers?" Tom Simonite. MIT Technology Review. October 6, 2014. Available from http://www.technologyreview.com/news/531356/should-industrial-robots-be-...
 
[7] “Coming Soon to the Library.” Lorett Waldman. The Wall Street Journal. September 29, 2014. Available at http://online.wsj.com/articles/coming-soon-to-the-library-humanoid-robot...
 
[8]  “Can Workplace Robots Get Along with the Humans They’re Replacing?” Kevin Roose. New York Magazine. October 3, 2014. Available at http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/10/are-workplace-robots-your-f...
 
[9] “Time for a Federal Robotics Agency.” Thor Benson. TruthDig. September 23, 2014. Available at http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/time_for_a_federal_robotics_agency_2...
 
[10] "Robots at Work: Toward a Smarter Factory." Rodney Brooks. The Futurist. May-June 2013. Available at http://www.wfs.org/futurist/2013-issues-futurist/may-june-2013-vol-47-no...