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Robots set to overhaul service industry, jobs

In the next decade, robots will increasingly take over low-level jobs, experts say, displacing human employees.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 25, 2008

Navigating a new industry: Call center workers at Aethon in Pittsburgh manually steer tug robots around obstacles at any of 100 hospitals across the US. The disc-shaped robots deliver linen and meals to patients’ rooms.

TOM A. PETER

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Pittsburgh

At a mall in Osaka, Japan, lost shoppers can get directions from a robot that looks like something out of "The Jetsons." In hospitals across the US, disc-shaped robots deliver bed linens and meals to rooms. In some homes, robots are already doing a range of chores, such as vacuuming rooms and cleaning gutters. At least one company is working on a robot that works on a farm.

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As a growing number of robots become capable of working alongside humans, the service industry may face a pattern all too familiar in the manufacturing sector: robots replacing humans in jobs.

"The service sector, which is a gigantic part of the employment landscape in the United States, is inevitably going to be a place where you can replace millions of people with robots that work 24/7 for less money," says futurist Marshall Brain.

While it will take a decade or more for droids, such as "Robovie," the mobile MapQuest in Osaka, to become pervasive in everyday life, the robotics industry is primed to begin producing robots that could eventually take the place of tour guides and bellhops.

The first robots to make a serious impact on the staffing in the service industry will probably carry out low-level tasks, experts say, allowing people to focus on chores that require higher levels of intelligence.

For now, automatons such as Robovie that use cameras and sensors to "understand" human emotions are more the exception than the rule.

"Dealing with humans is a very complex task. It takes us as humans many years to grow up and learn all the social etiquette and cues," says Joel Burdick, a professor of mechanical engineering who specializes in robotics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. It will take time to perfect robots capable of understanding human emotions well enough to please people in service roles, says Dr. Burdick.

And, though he expects that robots will have a substantial impact on the service industry, he says that in some cases humans will simply always want to interact with other humans.

But robots have already started their march into the service industry. Though they might not look like robots, automated checkout lines at grocery stores or touch-screen check-in kiosks at airports are the tip of the service industry's robotic revolution.

Already at the hospital

Autonomous mobile robots are starting to appear, as well. In more than 100 hospitals across the US, nurses receive help from robotic "tugs" that tow carts that deliver everything from meals to linens.

Once loaded and given a destination, they can drive through crowded hallways, steering around obstacles and stopping if someone unexpectedly steps in front. If it reaches an impasse, such as a wayward gurney, it automatically calls a help desk, where a technician steers around the obstruction or calls the hospital to ask someone to move the roadblock.

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