We’re already living in the age of robots, we just don’t call them that.

The word robot was introduced to the public by the Czech writer Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), published in 1920. The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people, called roboti (robots), out of synthetic organic matter. These creatures are closer to the modern idea of cyborgs or even clones, as they may be mistaken for humans and can think for themselves. They seem happy to work for humans at first, but that changes, and a hostile robot rebellion leads to the extinction of the human race. Thus was born the notion of robots as lethal Frankenstein-like copies of humans, an idea that has reverberated through science fiction ever since, from The Terminator to Battlestar Galactica.

People usually call something “a robot” when they have no idea what it does or how it works. Once it does something useful, they call it a vacuum cleaner, a car, a coffee machine, and so on. There are a lot of devices all around us that people 50 years ago would call robots. Take a look at the cash machine, that’s a robot you’ve probably been using for decades.

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Image telling people 50 years ago that there would be a person in your car telling you to “go left, go right, take the second exit”. And yet we don’t call a GPS a robot. We don’t call automatic sliding doors robots either, and yet a humanoid machine that would automatically open doors for us would certainly be called a robot. Why is that?

Creating robots is simply putting intelligence into everyday objects. Slowly but surely, we’re filling our lives with robots like cash machines, smart cities and self-driving cars. The key to understanding how these robots will change our lives is to recognize that they already have.

The Before and After internet world

A few days ago Jio Ito inspired the TED community by talking about the new period we just entered, the After Internet (AI) world. 

In the Before Internet (BI) world, starting a business had a clear timeline: you hired MBAs to write a business plan, you raised money, and then you built the thing you wanted to build. But in the AI world, the cost of innovation has come down so much that you start with the building—and then figure the money and business plan. “It’s pushed innovation to the edges, to the dorms rooms and startups, and away from stodgy organizations that had the money, the power and the influence.”

He sees this as a possibility for the rest of us, too. He introduces us to the Samsung Techwin SMT SM482 Pick & Place Machine, which can put 23,000 components on an electronics board, something that used to take an entire factory. “The cost of prototyping and distributing is becoming so low that students and software can do it too,” says Ito.

Ito doesn’t like the word ‘futurist’ he tells us to be ‘now-ists’ with a focus on being connected, always learning, fully aware and super present.

read more on this subject on The Before and After internet world

Gamification vs. Automation

Gamification is attractive in industries where a lot of menial work is required. How do you keep your employees engaged when their daily work isn’t always interesting and rarely varies? How do you appeal to employees who already live in a gamified environment, earning foursquare badges and runkeeper achievements? How do you foster competition between employees to be more productive when you can’t immediately shower them with direct financial rewards? Gamification sure seems like an answer to all of these problems. If you can somehow make the work more “fun”, then surely these problems would recede.

The theory of gamification is great, but the business case is a lot harder to implement. It’s difficult to gamify enterprise applications, building rewards and badges and point systems and attractive graphical interfaces and so on and so forth. Why would you go through all of that trouble though, when you can simply automate out the least exciting, most mundane of the work?

Even when you go through all of the trouble of gamifying a process, you still have attrition in a gamified environment. Employees will still get bored with flashy games and competition the same way they always jump to the newest smartphone app or social media tool.

So, why invest heavily in gamifying a standard process for your employees when you can replace the human element altogether?

For those interested in a little further reading: http://www.horsesforsources.com/automation-killed-the-gamification-star_030414

How automation helps us create jobs

Automation is essential to keeping manufacturers competitive in the global market. Though there’s no disputing the fact that some low-skilled jobs will suffer in this effort to keep manufacturing alive and well.

Over time we saw entire companies were being shut down and their operations being relocated overseas. These moves were done in large part to take advantage of cheap labor in foreign countries. labor so cheap that it offset the logistical challenges, freight costs and quality issues that exist in operating a manufacturing facility overseas. It was remarkable to me that products, destined to be sold in Europe or the US, could actually be manufactured in a foreign country and delivered here cheaper than if it were manufactured here.

Today we are seeing a phenomena coined “reshoring,” where manufacturing is being brought back to our countries. While there are many reasons for this, one cannot dispute the role automation plays. Automation is a key in combating low overseas labor rates and keeping manufacturing competitive in our new global business landscape. Wise investments in automation can completely eliminate low-skilled, repetitive tasks, almost eliminating those labor costs entirely. Granted, the adoption of automation does mean those low-skilled, repetitive jobs are going away. Though this can be a difficult issue, the real question modern technology forces us to face becomes: Is it better to lose the lower-skilled jobs and have manufacturing in Europe with a sizable level of employment, or ship manufacturing overseas and lose all the jobs?

Manufacturers have the responsibility to invest in automation to keep their factories competitive. It is not enough to simply update outdated controls to the most current platform. Manufacturers need to be driving for continuous improvement, by continually looking for emerging technologies and how they can be applied to make things more efficiently, of better quality, and with less waste. Those opportunities exist on every manufacturing floor and will always exist as long as technology advances. It is an exciting time for manufacturing and technology!

Apple is a perfect example of combining this state-of-the-art automation with reshoring: fhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbWOQWw1wkM

Do you know any other examples?

Interview with Bill Gates: From poverty to prosperity

Bill Gates believes big changes are coming to the labor market, and that people and governments aren’t prepared for them.

Bill Gates was recently interviewed at the economic think tank “The American Enterprise Institute” in Washington, D.C.. During the interview, he claimed that within 20 years, a lot of jobs will go away, to be replaced by software substitution.

Here’s what he said:

Software substitution, you know, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses …  It’s progressing. And that’s going to force us to rethink how these tax structures work in order to maximize employment, you know, given that, you know, capitalism in general, over time, will create more inequality and technology, over time, will reduce demand for jobs particularly at the lower end of the skill set.

As to what governments should do to prevent social unrest in the wake of mass unemployment, Bill believes we have to encourage companies to hire employees by, among other things, eliminating income tax. He’s also not a big fan of raising the minimum wage. He’s afraid it will discourage employers from hiring workers in the category he feels that is most threatened by automation.

When people say we should raise the minimum wage, I think, boy, you know, I know some economists disagree. But I think, boy, I worry about what that does to job creation. The idea that through the income tax credit you would end up with a certain minimum wage that you’d receive, that I understand better than potentially damping demand in the part of the labor spectrum that I’m most worried about.

Automated construction

3D printing might one day help solve the world’s shelter crises.

Nearly 1 billion people in the world don’t have access to adequate shelter, a situation that breeds poverty, disease, illiteracy, crime and overpopulation. To address this problem, Behrokh Khoshnevis is developing a process called  Contour Crafting to use 3D printing technology to build entire houses.

Khoshnevis and his team are creating a 3D printer that can build a 230m² house (the size of a standard row house including a garden) in as little as 20 hours. The machine could even do the electrical work, plumbing, tiling and painting. The buildings don’t even have to be linear. To make the buildings structurally sound as well as beautiful, the 3D printer can print curves.

Contour Crafting will save the construction 20 percent to 25 percent in financing and 25 percent to 30 percent in materials. The biggest savings would come in labor, where Contour Crafting would save 45 percent to 55 percent by using 3D printers instead of humans. There would also be fewer CO2 emissions and less energy used.

The ultimate goal of the project is to quickly, safely and more efficiently produce entire neighborhoods in impoverished areas.

11 jobs that no longer exist

1. Bowling alley pinsetter

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These were young boys employed at bowling alleys to set up the pins for clients.

2. Human alarm clock

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Also called “knocker-uppers”. They were essentially alarm clocks, hired to ensure that people would wake up on time to get to their jobs. They would use sticks, clubs or pebbles to knock on clients’ windows and doors.

3. Ice cutter

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Before modern refrigeration and preservation techniques were invented, ice cutters would saw up big blocks of ice from frozen lakes. People used these blocks of ice in their cellars and refrigerators. It was a very dangerous job often done in extreme conditions.

4. Listener for enemy aircraft

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Before the invention of radar, the military used acoustic mirrors and listening devices like the one pictured above to focus and detect the sound of engines from approaching aircraft.

5. Rat catcher

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These people were hired to control rat populations in big cities. They had high risks of suffering bites and infections, but also helped prevent rat-born diseases from spreading to the public.

6. Lamplighter

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Lamplighters used long poles to light, extinguish and refuel street lamps. This was obviously before electric street lights were introduced.

7. Milkman

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These were also common in the time before modern preservation techniques became widespread. Fresh, non-treated milk spoils very quickly, and had to be delivered almost daily.

8. Log driver

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Before modern tools, technology and infrastructure became available, log drivers would float and guide cut logs down rivers from a logging site to processing areas.

9. Switchboard operator

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These were integral parts of a telephone network’s operation before modern technology rendered them obsolete. They would, among other things, connect long-distance calls. All of these tasks are now performed digitally.

10. Resurrectionist

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Also called “body snatchers”. They were hired to remove corpses from graves for universities to use as cadavers. Cadavers from legal means were rare and difficult to obtain, so universities had to resort to other means of obtaining them.

11. Lector

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Basically a human radio, a lector was often hired from money pooled from factory workers. The lector would read to large rooms full of manual laborers to keep them entertained.

Automating the way we cure diseases

About 7000 diseases currently affect humans, yet only about 500 have any treatment approved by the Food and Drug Administration (a US government agency that, among other things, regulates drugs). So if you happen to be one of the people unfortunate enough to get one of those 6500 diseases, doctors can do nothing for you.

The process of developing a new intervention is slow and expensive; the average length of time from discovery of a therapeutic target to approval of a new drug currently is about 14 years.

Right now, robots are working to solve this problem.

At the NIH Chemical Genomics Center in Rockville, Md., a state-of-the-art lab uses robots to search for new treatments. Machines work around-the-clock, testing hundreds of thousands of compounds against a variety of mostly rare diseases.

In a traditional lab, workers deliver tear-size drops of chemicals into wells on plastic plates that contain cells from patients. Scientists then look for any successful attack on the cells. Robots perform this work at the NIH lab, untiring, faster than human hands.

These robots can perform 3 million tests every week on a different disease. If a person were to perform all of these tests by hand, it would take him 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 12 years. To do exactly the same that this robot does in a week.

This robot is changing the way we cure diseases, and in time it could save millions of lives.

today’s unseen hero: The PLC

Today we’re going to give you some insight into the PLC, today’s unseen hero controlling a massive range of equipment.

A PLC, or better said Programmable logic controller, is a digital computer used for industrial automation. It is designed for electromechanical processes, such as control of machinery on factory assembly lines, amusement rides, or lighting fixtures. Unlike general-purpose computers, the PLC is designed for multiple inputs and output arrangements, extended temperature ranges, immunity to electrical noise, and resistance to vibration and impact. A user can program the PLC to perform a series or sequence of events.

In the 1960’s Programmable Logic Controllers were first developed to replace relays and relay control systems. Nowadays in some cases people replaced PLC’s with computers… However, PLCs are still very much in use in all sorts of industries, and it’s likely that they will remain there for quite some time.

More info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Programmable_logic_controller

Why isn’t there a microwave for cooling things instead of heating them up?

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There are only 3 ways to transfer heat into or out of something: radiation, conduction, and convection. A microwave, not surprisingly, uses microwaves (radiation) to transfer heat. It’s very easy to add energy through radiation. You just blast whatever it is you want to heat up with microwaves. The microwaves are absorbed by water, fats and sugars. Once absorbed, they’re converted directly into atomic motion, meaning heat.

To cool something down this way is another story entirely. Instead of just blasting something with microwaves, you have to hit it with very specifically tuned and timed microwaves to counteract and dampen the atomic motion. This is a very nice analogy: it’s easy to throw something at a bell to make it ring, but it’s a lot harder to hit it with something to make it quiet.

A “reverse microwave” would undoubtedly be an amazing invention. Right now, we waste a great deal of energy on cooling items, and keeping them cool. With a reverse microwave, you could cool that same item in a fraction of the time, using only a fraction of the energy. Though I’m afraid something like a reverse microwave might never exist. Active radiative cooling just isn’t very practical.

You might come across products that claim they can do it (e.g. http://www.ohgizmo.com/2013/10/29/reverse-microwave-chills-drinks-in-seconds/), but don’t be fooled. This impostor doesn’t use radiation at all. Instead it uses ordinary conduction & convection.