Robo-Lawyers, Farmers, Docs: Our Future on Autopilot
By Talal Al-Khatib,
Discovery News, 4 February 2016.

Robotic technology improves safety and reduces cost, but how long will we have to wait for artificial intelligence to take over?

1. Robots at the Wheel

Credit: Michael Shick/Wikimedia Commons

Given all of the investment into autonomous vehicles by tech companies and auto manufacturers, the time for robotic cars is nigh. But first, developers will have to work out some of the kinks. Specifically, engineers need to make robotic cars drive less like cars and more like humans.

Earlier this week, the U.K. government handed out multimillion dollar grants to eight separate projects working on autonomous vehicle technology. Jaguar Land Rover is specifically examining the behavior of human drivers to improve their designs. Currently, robotic cars have a tendency to stick to the rules of the road, and that has led them into accidents with human drivers who bend the law.

Autonomous cars aren't the only artificial intelligence-powered technology on the horizon, though. Robotic technology will transform just about every industry imaginable. But how long will we have to wait?

2. Robo-Pilots

Credit: Paul Nelhams/Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.

Would you feel comfortable getting on a plane if there were no one in the cockpit? Would you miss that curiously articulated but still soothing voice over the intercom telling you when to fasten your seatbelt or what landmarks you were flying over? Would you trust a machine to take off and land you safely at your hopefully not final final destination?

If you're not quite ready for robots flying the friendly skies, too bad, because they're coming. The sensor, computer and A.I. technology needed to replace pilots is already being developed and tested, the New York Times reported last year, and some government agencies are already experimenting with cargo planes flown by robots or remote operators. The technology to conduct entire flights automatically is available now; passengers and government aviation agencies just aren't ready for it yet.

A flight spent entirely on autopilot could improve the safety of air travel. According to Boeing, 80 percent of airplane accidents are caused by human error, which includes not just pilots but also mechanics, air traffic controllers and other support staff. Mechanical failures accounts for the remaining 20 percent of incidents.

3. Robo-Delivery

Credit: hectorgalarza/Pixabay

With robots driving our cars and flying our planes, shouldn't they also be able to captain our ships and conduct our trains?

Although many ships and trains rely heavily on software for navigation, what is often lacking is the regulatory framework to allow for automation. International shipping in particular is subject to a complex network of rules and laws that vary by country but prevent a robot from legally taking the helm.

Particularly for shipping, automation can spell significant savings. Automating shipping could not only reduce crew costs; it could also lower carbon emissions by increasing fuel efficiency simply by going slower, reported BBC News in 2014. A human crew wouldn't be able to handle a lengthy voyage needed for optimal fuel consumption levels with the patience of a machine. That patience could be a major relief to the environment given that the more than 55,000 cargo ships on the water today produce enough carbon emissions to place it sixth on the list of carbon emissions by nation.

4. Robo-Lawyers

Credit: Joe Gratz/Flickr, Public Domain.

If you ever find yourself in a courtroom facing a jury of your (likely human) peers, would you trust a robot lawyer to represent you?

We're not there yet, but developers are working on applications that can assist anyone seeking answers to basic legal questions without a consultation with a lawyer. A British student at Stanford University put together a website to provide basic legal answers to questions users might have regarding parking tickets, payment protection insurance (PPI) claims and delayed flights, Mashable reported last month.

Some law firms have already adopted legal review technology called predictive coding, CNN Money noted in 2014. A collection of documents is fed into a program that analyzes the data and returns relevant evidence to an attorney. One firm even found the robotic reviewer more reliable than its human counterparts.

5. Robot-Doctors

Credit: PresidenciaRD/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Patients feeling that they lack adequate face time with doctors will get a lot less of it when robots take over the medical profession. While technology currently assists with medical training, minimally invasive surgery, remote patient interface and more, currently robotic systems provide primarily medical support rather than diagnostics and treatment.

A British digital health care startup known as Babylon is moving toward a more automated approach. The firm is developing on an app that "can decode symptoms and prevent illnesses before they occur, by tracking your daily habits, and integrating data about your heart rate, diet and your medical records," The Telegraph reported last month. The service also offers patients the option of speaking to a doctor over video chat should they need a human touch.

6. Robo-Soldiers


Well-trained soldiers are often described as killing machines, but defense agencies and technology firms invest heavily in machine killers that will take the battlefields of tomorrow (today). Even the best-trained soldier needs to eat and sleep after all, but not robots.

One potential future combatant is a robotic a robotic gun turret that can identify, track and shoot targets developed by South Korea engineers. The Super aEgis II is equipped with a .50 calibre machine gun and has a range of 2.5 miles (4 kilometers), the BBC reported last year. Other prototypes with different weaponry and varying levels of autonomy, such as the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS) pictured above, are also currently under development and could soon see action.

In fact, by 2030, a quarter of U.S. combat soldiers will be replaced by robots, General Robert Cone announced at an Army Aviation symposium in 2014. Already the military is considering thinning out the ranks to make way for robots and drones to handle the combat roles once managed by humans.

7. Robo-Construction

Credit: Fastbrick Robotics via Gizmag

Construction projects are time-consuming, labor-intensive, prone to delays, disputes and other issues. Robots on the work sites make many of these problems go away.

A robotic bricklayer named SAM, which stands for semi-automated mason, has started working alongside some construction workers, the MIT Technology Review reported last year, applying mortar and laying brick. A human worker is still needed for the tasks that require a little more finesse, such as handling aesthetic details or working on corners. SAM can lay bricks three times faster than a mason doing it the old-fashioned, however.

Another robot, named Hadrian [pictured above], developed by engineers in Perth, Australia, can take that even further, working 20 faster than a human bricklayer, Gizmag reported last year. Hadrian is capable of laying up to 1,000 bricks per hour and can lay down the framework of an entire house in two days.

8. Robo-Domestic Workers


Ever since Rosie the robot made in The Jetsons made her television debut more than 50 years ago, Americans, or at least those of us who base on concept of the future on a 1960s cartoon, have been pining for a technical alternative to the manual drudgery that is housework. Robot vacuums and smart appliances have begun to make their way into our households, but when will we start seeing an artificial intelligence capable of coping with our human-made messes?

Several years ago, Carnegie Mellon researchers debuted the Home Exploring Robotic Butler, also known as HERB, a multi-function robot that can perform basic tasks. For example, HERB can open an Oreo cookie without crushing it, a minor feat but still is impressive given the delicacy of the task.

A future with a robot capable of taking over the chore list of an entire household is still a ways away. The hardware is available today, but the algorithms that power the intelligence that can declutter our messy worlds is still missing.

9. Robo-Farmers


Robots could come in handy for only maintaining a home but also tending the fields, be it simple gardening or more complex farming.

Two years ago, a team of graduate students from the University of Colorado Boulder demonstrated for NASA as part of the agency's eXploration HABitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge a design for growing food and tending garden for astronauts in space. Networked together with the plants, the robots monitor soil humidity, air and water temperature, lighting, pH and more.

Of course the technology of tomorrow isn't just for astronauts. Earlier this week, a Japanese firm, Kyoto-based Spread, announced that it would operate a farm run almost entirely by robots. The company isn't targeting looking to begin production decades from now, but looking to get up and running by the middle of 2017.

10. Robo-Writers

Credit: geralt/Pixabay

Writing is a job often considered one of the last professions that robots would be able to encroach upon. But programs that have picked up the pen (figuratively) have proven proficient at prose.

Media outlets such as the Associated Press have begun using automated systems for reporting on topics like financial news. The wire service publishes some 3,000 stories every quarter that have no human byline, The Verge reported last year. In addition to being faster than a human reporter, the automated news articles are less prone to error.

The stories are created by Automated Insights, a service that produces millions of articles every week, its public relations manager explained. Rather than replacing journalists outright, the robo-reporters are freeing up newsroom resources to allow writers to produce more focused, nuanced pieces - at least until the machines figure those out, too.

11. Robo-Robot Builders


In a future where robots have taken over just about every industry, the only work for people that might be available is building more robots. The only problem with that small outlet for human capital in the future is that we already have robots that are doing that for us.

European researchers are developing robotic systems that build other robots. With each generation of new robots built, the production design improves.

Basic machines have been involved in the manufacturing process since the dawn of the assembly line. As they've gradually pushed more people off the factory floor, it only makes sense that the last job they would take is building their own replacements.

[Source: Discovery News. Edited. Some images added.]

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