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GEETA PADMANABHAN
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Healthcare, household chores, industry, entertainment... robots are everywhere. And they have changed our lives in so many ways, writes GEETA PADMANABHAN

MUSIC TO THE EAR Now, there's even a violin-playing robot Photo: AP
MUSIC TO THE EAR Now, there's even a violin-playing robot Photo: AP

S pooky or fun? If you're filling a prescription at the University of California Medical Center's pharmacy, it's quite likely you'll see a robot behind the counter. Getting his medication orders from the UCSF hospital through the pharmacy computers, this compounder efficiently picks pills, packs them into a plastic ring and pushes it across. Thanks, NDR-114! In a Japanese primary classroom, robot teacher Saya, who started as a receptionist, takes the attendance, smiles and gently scolds the kids who are noisy. In a Hyundai factory...

“Robots are everywhere — in the military, healthcare, household and the entertainment business,” points out robotics expert Sujith Shetty, Tespa India. “I expect to see robots welding and loading/unloading automated machines as well. There's a serious dearth of skilled and trained labour.”

According to Marshall Brain, author of Robotic Nation, by 2013, 1.2 million industrial robots will be switched on worldwide — one R2D2 for every 5,000 people. Already, uncomplaining office “Jeffreys” are analysing documents, filling IV syringes/bags, fetching water cans. Robotic arms are common in operation theatres. NASA's android Robonaut2s, with their five-fingered hands and multiple sensors will clean and carry at space stations, and soon help spacewalkers with repairs and scientific work.

Varied tasks

Look around. ATMs spit out cash, virtual pests call us 24x7. At airports, odd-looking robots check us in. How long before self-service machines check us out at supermarkets? Pontiac Motors replaced 20,000 assembly workers with robots long ago. Now Google has test-driven seven automated cars with human supervisors as passengers. Japanese retailer Aeon installed a 4-foot robot at a store in 2008 to babysit children while parents shopped.

“Enthiran” may be an entertainer, but robotic drones go on reconnaissance and combat missions, locate underwater objects and check bridges and pipelines for cracks. According to Wired, the MAARS robot with its GPS monitor can be programmed to zone in on fire-hit areas, open doors and pull out people. A snake-like robot that can enter narrow spaces, made at Japan's Tohoku University helped rescue people trapped in Sendai's collapsed buildings. Robots have entered the Fukushima plant to gauge radiation levels. Waiting in the wings are newsreaders and writers — Big Ten Network admits its baseball and softball reports are machine-generated. Narrative Science computers swallow game data from scorekeepers and disgorge sports stories in minutes.

What, we'll be wiped out as a workforce? Well, robots make ideal employees. They're smart — IBM's Watson took the Jeopardy crown! Robots make fewer mistakes and do repetitive jobs with uniform efficiency. They don't grumble, abscond when guests arrive. “Expect an invasion of mini-robots in agriculture and SMEs in manufacture,” says R. Ramamurthy, Cyber Society of India. “There's a severe shortage of farm labour. Robots work non-stop, improve nut-and-bolt job quality, and are cost-effective.”

Wishing is cost-free. While Shetty wants all jobs involving hazardous materials and surroundings handled by robots, Rajesh Kumar, Defiance Technologies, would love to see a robot (with a smile and a salute?) at every parking lot. “Robot James at the Express Mall gate,” he hopes, “will park my limo, while I proceed to the theatre.” He allots them “in-house” jobs as well. “They can assist senior citizens to walk, locate specs/remote-control/telephone numbers, fetch them drinks and remind them when to take their medicines.” (Hey, why do I have to be a senior for these services?). He'd be delighted if Aiko (perfect woman) flips parathas in the kitchen, but fears the loss of the “personal touch”.

“That's some distance away,” says C.R. Jayaprakash, assistant professor, Communications, throwing a dampener on the dream. “Don't bet on robo-like equipment doing your daily chores so soon.” Yet, changes are happening, he agrees. “Smaller gadgets have blown in “i”volution, others will bring in changes, often unpredictable, in the way we live.” Good or bad? “Robots will reduce movement, increase lifestyle disorders,” he warns. “Accepting this new world won't be easy.” Ramamurthy predicts severe repercussions. “The work culture will change; we'll need new types of jobs,” he says. Shetty is optimistic. “Robots are needed to meet global industrial demands,” he argues. “Humans and robots do and can co-exist, we're moving towards a pro-robotic society.”

‘Ooh, wouldn't it be loverly' if robots do the grunge work leaving our hands free for — what else — SMS-ing? We'll be on perpetual vacation while updated versions of Iron Giant, Gort, Johnny-5 and WALL-E walk our dogs, fix leaks, build homes, drive cars, bathe/feed/medicate and sing us to sleep. You don't have to get off the sofa and risk missing even a second of the saas-bahu serial. “Robby, bring dinner!” will do it. Kids bothering you? Hello Kitty and NEC's PaPeRo can tell jokes, conduct quizzes and monitor them through a radio-frequency ID chip. And our signboards will read: Trespassers will meet Terminator.

Humans and robots do and can co-exist, we're moving towards a pro-robotic society

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