22 August 2014

The Robots That Are Changing Our Lives

One of the better way to conceptualize many of the technologies that are changing our economy, our leisure time and the way we fight our wars is as robots. They don't look human. Most are sessile. But, the do work that a human would otherwise do.

Some have a kiosk format. I withdraw cash from the bank via an ATM more often that I do from a teller. You can rent videos at a kiosk. You can check in for a flight at a kiosk. Vending machines sell you snacks. An automated chair at the grocery store helps you monitor your blood pressure. Kiosks can provide access to registries as you shop for wedding presents or a baby shower. Kiosks provide a way to purchase the right to use public parking spaces. They provide a way to check out library books, and to have confirmation that they are returned. Kiosk type robots allow you to get gas for your fuel tank and air for your tires, and authorization to use the automated car wash at the gas station without dealing with an attendant. They dispense condoms and deodorant at truck stops. They dispense luggage carts and locker space at the airport. They sell light rail tickets. They sell postage and travel insurance. They flush toilets. They turn on and off lights. They dispatch elevators. They monitor store front doors and houses and cars for theft. They serve as witnesses in public places. They tell you were you are and how to go where you are headed. They connect you with the person you are calling.

Others are computer programs that you interact with over the Internet. The dispense streaming video on demand. They renew books and allow you to request which video you will receive for viewing next in the mail. They tell you your bank account balance and transfer funds between accounts. They accept payments on your credit cards. They receive tax returns and legal pleadings, and distribute legal pleadings to other people who are entitled to them. They receive filing fees, taxes due, and fines payable. They sell airplane tickets, distribute itineraries and provide boarding passes. They sell movie tickets. They sell mail order goods from books to jewelry and e-goods like e-books and computer game rights. They sell telecommunications services like ongoing cell phone service. They register you to vote, decide who to send ballots to, confirm that someone hasn't voted twice, and count ballots. They carry out most business transactions with the Secretary of State's office. They receive trademark filings. They post advertisements, and process replies to job offers. They order groceries you want delivered. They answer frequently asked questions, and provide directions and contact information. They conduct matchmaking for people looking for prospective spouses, friends, business contacts, and one night stands. They trade stocks and bonds and options and currencies and commodities. They provide input in loan underwriting decisions. They decide who can buy guns. They issue speeding and red light traffic tickets. They deliver messages. They administer surveys.

The shift has been subtle. For the most part, we aren't even aware that it has happened, and even when we do, we rarely think about these innovations as robots. But, any robot that can replace a full time minimum wage worker for three years is worth about $60,000, and many robots, once developed can replace tens or hundreds or thousands of workers. Simply by virtue of their ability to work almost 24/7, a typical robot can replace three workers, not just one, upping the ante to $180,000. A kiosk system or computer program can often be developed for sums of money on this scale, particularly when many workers are replaced.

The military is making similar shifts. The humans are rarely entirely out of the loop, but automation has replaced many jobs. The Navy's Littoral Combat Ship requires about a third of the sailors of a comparable sized legacy warship, and there is every reason to believe that this trend will generalize to almost every kind of warship. The covert war in Pakistan under the Authorization for Use of Military Force that also authorizes the war in Afghanistan has been fought mostly with unmanned drones often controlled from hundreds or thousands of miles away. The cruise missiles that were launched in the early days of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan used automated systems to direct their flight paths from the ships and submarines where they were launched to the coordinates where they were targeted. Automatic explosive round loading systems will trim one person from the crew of future tanks. There are drones in the design or early utilization phase to conduct surveillance, jam electronic communications, conduct bombing runs and airdrops from land and from ships, engage in air to air combat, patrol seas and harbors, deliver convoy supplies, and enter buildings with hostile forces inside.  In addition to saving money, these robots keep human soldiers out of harm's way.

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