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The robots are coming! Better get used to it

Robots are widely used now, and they're only spread even farther into daily life. The sci-fi future may be closer than you think.

The Robotation Academy at Hannover Messe -- site of the mammoth CeBIT trade show -- is designed to instruct potential customers in the ways of robotics. CeBIT organizer Deutsche Messe runs the center, but Volkswagen instructors staff it in an attempt to improve manufacturing quality at the auto maker's suppliers.
The Robotation Academy at Hannover Messe--site of the mammoth CeBIT trade show--is designed to instruct potential customers in the ways of robotics. CeBIT organizer Deutsche Messe runs the center, but Volkswagen instructors staff it in an attempt to improve manufacturing quality at the auto maker's suppliers.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

For those of you reluctant to welcome our new robot overlords, it might be time to reconsider your stance.

Six times in the last month I've been struck by the increasing utility of robots performing tasks that a human otherwise would. I can't imagine the number will be going down, either.

The most recent example was Amazon's $775 million acquisition of Kiva Systems, a company that automates warehouse operations with robots. "Kiva's technology is another way to improve productivity by bringing the products directly to employees to pick, pack, and stow," said Dave Clark, vice president of global customer fulfillment at Amazon, in a statement. In other words, robots do a lot of the grunt work to make the warehouse run faster.

Amazon knows a lot about operating at large scale, and robots that might not make sense for a small company are a good match for huge warehouses wired directly to a huge e-commerce operation.

Kiva's robots automate warehouse operations.
Kiva's robots automate warehouse operations.

And Amazon isn't alone. A German industrial power called Still has the same idea as it expands beyond mere forklifts into the loftier realm of warehouse logistics. At the CeBIT trade show, it showed off a prototype of an autonomous forklift.

There were robots aplenty at CeBIT, the second in my list of robot epiphanies. The eye candy was a Fraunhofer Institute demonstration of a robot that would take a photo of a person then sketch a portrait based on the digital photo. But there's plenty of serious work, too, as evidenced by the 4,000 people a year that come through a robotics training center at the CeBIT fairgrounds.

That training center, the Robotation Academy, was established to convince small businesses that robots are worthy investments for manufacturing, in large measure because of higher consistent quality than what humans offer.

Which brings me to the third situation: Apple, Foxconn, and China.

There's plenty of room for debate about whether I should worry that my purchase of a third-generation iPad contributes to dismal working conditions at Foxconn among laborers, where much of Apple's shiny gizmos are assembled by low-cost Chinese labor. But what I see as a clearer issue is that the work is ideally suited to robots--mind-numbingly repetitive and not rewarding except perhaps financially.

Obviously, robots are expensive, inflexible and not the right answer for every manufacturing job. But just look at the trajectory and extrapolate. Ever seen the insides of a chip fab? It's automated by necessity because the manufacturing requires extreme precision and isolation from people who are constantly shedding dead skin cells and other impurities. Expect automated manufacturing to extend steadily down the supply chain.

Fourth on my list was a view of the gargantuan complex used to manufacture 3,850 Volkswagen cars a day at the company's Wolfsburg, Germany, headquarters. I've seen B-roll of robots welding car parts for years, so robots on car manufacturing lines are nothing new to me intellectually.

But seeing the the robots firsthand as I walked onto the VW factory floor was another thing altogether. Row upon row of these behemoths whipped stamped-steel car parts around with a frightening grace, servomotors whirring and welding sparks flying. Most notable: I couldn't even see humans initially until my guide pointed them out in a central quality-control station.

To make its sixth-generation series Golf cars and assorted derivatives, VW has 1,612 robots from Germany's Kuka and Japan's Fanuc Robotics toiling away, typically three shifts a day. Another 800 robots, eerily inert, awaited activation as the plant shifts to its seventh-generation Golf line. Unmanned vehicles from the logistics group shuttled inventory around, navigating on their own.

Who can argue against higher quality, faster production, and lower manufacturing costs? The workers who lose their jobs to robots, of course. VW has a strong union, with something like 98 percent membership, and VW perforce works to find different jobs for the employees as the robots spread. But it's hard to imagine at the larger scale that the increasing use of robotic manufacturing worldwide isn't pushing humans out of jobs.

Perhaps this displacement is more clear when cars move beyond the assembly line into our hands. Google, a company that prides itself on using new technology to disrupt what it sees as complacent businesses, is famously working on an autonomous vehicle. Its robotic car drives itself.

One of the big objections to robotic cars comes from a continent I call the freedom-of-the-open-roaders. These folks, with visions of Route 66 road trips dancing in their heads, relish the mobility cars grant and are loathe to hand the controls over to a computer.

The car industry, naturally, caters to this ideal, with countless advertisements of sports cars unwinding the curves of mountain roads and gnarly SUVs conquering mud puddles and boulder fields. So the fifth item on my list came as something of a surprise: Bill Ford Jr., executive chairman of the automaker, touting robotic vehicles that link into platoons and drive more safely than people. Think of cars not as "independent, individual devices," he said, but rather "pieces of a much richer network."

Ford believes autonomous vehicles are an inevitability as giant cities and their residents grapple with gridlock. Living in one, I have lots of sympathy with his viewpoint: traffic already has killed the freedom of the open road for me.

Last on my list is research that, while merely academic at this point, nevertheless opened my eyes. It was a story in The Atlantic Cities showing a computer model that mixes autonomous vehicles and human-driven vehicles. A video shows six lanes of traffic coming from four directions, with cars rarely stopping as they weave among each other like pedestrians on a busy sidewalk. No traffic lights, no roundabout, no left-turn signals.

The researchers involved, from the University of Texas at Austin, envision an "intersection manager" in charge of the operation. I suspect that such a future would require a lot more peer-to-peer coordination, but the point is the same: robots driving cars has the potential to look very different.

Matters of technology, insurance, culture, and law are thorny, to be sure, but plenty of other radical changes have swept through the history of transportation. The advantages of robotics when it comes to labor and convenience will win out in many domains, just as the industrial revolution's factories displaced making shoes and suits by hand.

Cobblers and tailors survive to this day, and humans will persist both as cogs in the machine and creative agents. But we'll be having to make room for the machines, too.