Just consider the sign spinners, gentle reader. You may have never walked in their shoes, but you know their profession well. These are the men and women who bravely stand by the roadside and spin signs promoting local businesses. Sometimes they even climb into sweat-soaked mascot costumes for the express purpose of grabbing your attention just long enough to relay the advertisement.
There was a time when such an occupation would seem impervious to mechanization. Really, why would we bother? Strip the job down to its basics and you have a task that requires next to nothing in terms of skill and expense. At best, sign spinning is human performance art which, naturally, requires an actual human.
But then blogger Rob Cockerham of Sacramento, Calif., noticed the soulless automaton you see to your right. Yes, that's a mannequin equipped with a rotary mechanism -- a robotic sign spinner known as a "Wavemaster."
Is the technological singularity upon us? Is the end truly nigh? No and no. But the Wavemaster does serve as a reminder that we're not above throwing a robot at any task on the planet. From surgeons to lovers, here's a list of 10 occupations that may eventually fall to the relentless rise of the machines.
10. The Metal Musicians
Oh, you only listen to human musicians, is that right? Enjoy it while it lasts, because the era of the robotic rocker will come sooner than you think. In fact, the change is already under way. Computers first generated compositions in the mid-1950s, and influential artists such as Brian Eno and Autechre have employed algorithmic compositions on their albums. In other words, they've handed the creative process over to number crunchers.
The use of formal instructions and processes to create music dates back to ancient Greece, and today you'll find functioning robot musicians aplenty in the world's leading technical universities. We're not talking player pianos either, but bots like 2010's Shimon, a marimba-playing robot at the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology. Designed to play like a machine and improvise like a robot, Shimon can adapt and learn while jamming with its organic bandmates. Designer Gil Weinberg also unveiled a robotic drummer named Haile in 2006.
These are just two examples of the world's growing population of robotic and computerized musicians, which include Toyota's trumpet-playing robots and Georgia Tech's Crazy J, a robotic guitarist.
9. Surgeons of Steel
It's one thing to trust a robot with a trumpet solo, but what about prostate surgery? If you find the thought of a mechanical physician cutting into your nether regions creepy, then you'll be interested to know that 73,000 American men underwent robot-assisted prostate surgery in 2009 [source: Kolata].
Robot-assisted procedures entail a human surgeon manipulating tiny robotic arms through an incision to remove diseased tissue. This method takes less time and results in less blood loss than traditional surgical techniques. While the human surgeon typically works from the same room as the machine, the technology spearheads the emerging reality of telesurgery. In this reality, future surgeons may operate on a patient halfway around the world without leaving their offices.
But will robot surgeons ever carry out these procedures without the aid of a human behind the curtain? Indeed, some roboticists hope to create machines capable of learning the art of surgery from the humans they assist -- enough to eventually operate autonomously.
8. Artificial Artists
If you want to see the work of a robotic painter, look no further than the paint job on a new automobile. Chances are that shiny coat came courtesy of an industrial robot on an assembly line. But can a robot painter create true works of art? Will the Andy Warhols and Pablo Picassos of the future run on batteries?
Any fax machine can scan an image and produce a facsimile. For example, Aikon 2, a robot built by Goldsmiths, a college within the University of London, can scan a human face and sketch the image on a sheet of paper. But is this art or merely a more complex form of artless image reproduction?
It takes a robot like Doug Marx and Luke Kelly's Vangobot (as in Vincent van Gogh, get it?) to further complicate the question. This particular bot boasts 18 brushes, a paint mixer and 3-D spatial awareness. Furthermore, it can combine artistic influences to create fresh takes on a given subject.
Will future generations accept robot-generated art or will they prefer the work of human painters and sculptors?
7. My Robot Lover
Long the obsession of sci-fi nerds around the world, the age of the sexbot has finally dawned. What started as an effort to create a robot home care nurse diverged into "Cherry 2000" territory when developer Douglas Hines decided there was simply more money in the adult entertainment industry.
Hines' company, True Companion LLC, unveiled a prototype named Roxxxy at Las Vegas' 2010 Adult Entertainment Expo. Despite its resemblance to an inanimate sex doll, the product allegedly boasts enough artificial intelligence and prerecorded phrases to engage in pillow talk.
A mere novelty, you say? A weird invention for a select subset of weirdos? Think again. Even with a price tag of $7,000 to $9,000, preorders reportedly exceeded 4,000 units [source: Lucy].
6. Anthony Bourdainbot
Robots are learning to create art and music. They're gaining the ability to satisfy our physical and emotional cravings. But surely the culinary arts are off-limits, right? Think again, humans, because the age of the mechanical chef is already here.
Each year, FOOMA Japan's International Food Machinery and Technology Exhibition unveils a new legion of machines, ranging from the Toyo Riki Co.'s Okonomiyaki Robot (which makes Japanese pancakes) to Baba Tekkosho Company's Chef Robot, which handles sashimi with delicate, humanoid hands.
Sure, many of these models merely demonstrate what is possible, but robots have already invaded kitchens around the world. In 2010, Chinese fast-food chain Ruyi recently phased out some of its human chefs with automatic rice fryers and noodle boilers at two outlets, with plans for more.
Meanwhile, students at China's Yangzhou University created a fully automated robot capable of cooking up 600 classic Chinese dishes [source: Ngo]. Just imagine a vending machine with a mechanized kitchen inside it, and you're on the right track.
Oh, and if you think robots can't "flavor to taste," allow NEC System Technologies' sommelier robot to blow your mind. Not only can it identify wines with an infrared scanner, it can also "taste" leftovers and tell you what they are.
5. Toy Soldier
If you're not comfortable in the kitchen, then you might be delighted to hand the cooking duties off to a mechanical minion. But what about far less savory jobs such as policing our streets and fighting our wars? Humans have yet to hand responsibilities for such deadly professions over to robots - -at least not entirely -- but what might the future bring?
Automated weapons have long played a role in human warfare, with unmanned land and air weapons popping up even in World War II. Today, more than 40 countries are currently engaged in the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and the United States deploys its Predator and Reaper drones nonstop over Iraq and Afghanistan [source: Sharkey]. Furthermore, the United States military plans to replace one-third of its ground vehicles with robots by 2015 [source: Markoff].
So far, humans have remained a vital part of these robotic weapons systems. They pull the trigger. They decide when a target is valid. The choice of whether to use lethal force has always fallen to a human operator. But as artificial intelligence increases and ethical governing software improves, human oversight in these matters may greatly decrease.
4. Rise of the Artificially Intelligent Novelist
The words you're reading this very moment were written by a human being. Granted, said human being used a computer to write them, but you can still trace it all back to an organic mind. You can say the same for all of history's greatest works of literature. The future, however, may belong to the machines.
What, you don't think a robot can write a novel? Let's be honest, computers are already handling most of the spelling for us. Human language is nothing but coded data, a semiotic web of meanings and symbols that, in proper alignment, creates sentences, paragraphs and everything from crude jokes to philosophical arguments.
Artificial intelligence can't yet navigate this labyrinth of meaning well enough to rival the works of Shakespeare, but we have already created text-manipulating and text-generating programs capable of piecing together dialogue, poetry and stories in a manner that is at least capable of amusing audiences.
Believe it or not, even some of the first computers engaged in creative writing. Back in 1952, British computer scientist Christopher Strachey programmed the Mark One "Baby" computer to generate love poetry from a database of romantic language.
3. Ambassadors of Earth
Robots have already seen more of our solar system than their human creators ever have. Rovers and landers have touched down on Mars, Venus, Jupiter's moon Titan and even the surface of asteroids and comets. Voyager 1, launched in 1977, is currently the farthest man-made object from Earth as it continues to leave our solar system at a rate of 3.6 astronomical units (the distance between Earth and the sun) per year [source: NASA].
Sure, our radio and transmission signals continue to leak out into space and the Voyager and Pioneer probes all carried human images and records, but there's no denying that robots serve as Earth's galactic messengers. Living humans, after all, are fragile and difficult to keep alive in space. Meanwhile robots are capable of enduring extreme conditions and mission times that span multiple generations. Barring incredible advances in human spaceflight technology, the machines will continue to dominate the field of space exploration.
Should we ever find intelligent alien life elsewhere in the galaxy, just who do you think will give them Earth's greeting on some distant world?
2. Bot for Teacher
If you've ever taken an online course or just a computerized quiz, then congratulations, you've studied under a robotic teacher of sorts. But could machines one day march into our schools and handle classrooms of potentially unruly children?
Tokyo University of Science professor Hiroshi Kobayashi thinks so. In 2009, Kobayashi even promoted (and upgraded) his 2004 receptionist robot to teach in front of a classroom of live school children. Named Saya, the bot was capable of little more than handling roll call and hushing the students, but Japan isn't the only country interested in robotic teachers.
In 2010, the University of California, San Diego, experimented with a robotic teacher named RUBI, who at one point taught English-speaking preschoolers a few words in Finnish, and the University of Southern California continue to study how machines such as its robot "Bandit" can interact with autistic children.
It may be difficult to imagine such machines leading a class, much less inspiring students like a gifted flesh-and-blood teacher, but as robotocists continue to develop truly socially intelligent machines, the possibilities expand dramatically.
1. The Positronic God
If we can love robots both physically and emotionally, if we eventually entrust them with our medical care, teaching and warfare, then can we really place limits on what roles they can usurp from humans? Could they lead us? Could they protect us? Might they even provide us with spiritual or philosophical guidance?
The concept of a robo-Yahweh or a mecha-Buddha may seem a bit silly at first, but only till you fully consider the possibilities of the technological singularity. In a 1993 article, former mathematics professor Vernor Vinge coined the term, arguing that technology would continue to improve at an exponential rate and create a computerized superhuman intelligencebefore 2030.
Great minds continue to argue over what such a singularity would mean for the human race, but here is a closing thought: In creating a superhuman intelligence, would we also develop an intellect capable of both secular and spiritual leadership? Might we actually produce the entity that human minds have turned to since ancient times?
Through the advancement of our technology, will we eventually create God?
Explore the links on the next page to ponder even more world-shaking quandaries.
Lots More Information
- Working Robot Pictures
- 10 Coolest Robots Ever
- Artificial Intelligence Puzzles
- Future Robots Puzzles
- Coolest Robots Quiz
- Arkin, Ronald. Personal interview. May 23, 2010.
- Beiser, Vince. "Doctors May Soon Operate From Miles Away." Wired. April 2, 2009. (Dec. 7, 2010) http://www.pbs.org/kcet/wiredscience/story/20-remote_controlled_robot_surgery.html
- Brownlee, John. "Robot Identifies Human Flesh As Bacon." Wired. Nov. 8, 2006. (Dec. 6, 2010) http://www.wired.com/table_of_malcontents/2006/11/robot_identifie/
- Bunyan, Nigel. "World's first computer was used to generate love poetry." The Telegraph. March 10, 2009. (Dec. 6, 2010) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/4967408/Worlds-first-computer-was-used-to-generate-love-poetry.html
- Carey, Benedict and John Markoff. "Students, Meet Your New Teacher, Mr. Robot." New York Times. July 10, 2010. (Dec. 6, 2010) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/science/11robots.html
- Cockerham, Rob. "Jewelry Sale in the Uncanny Valley." Cockeyed.com. Nov. 30, 2010. (Dec. 6, 2010) http://cockeyed.com/citizen/spinner/spinners.php
- Haidegger, Tamás et al. "Surgery in space: the future of robotic telesurgery." July 1, 2010. (Dec. 6, 2010)
- Kageyama, Yuri. "Robot teacher smiles, scolds in classroom." Associated Press. March 11, 2009. (Dec. 6, 2010) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29634158/ns/technology_and_science-innovation/
- Kolata, Gina. "Results Unproven, Robotic Surgery Wins Converts." New York Times. Feb. 13, 2010. (Dec. 6, 2010) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/health/14robot.html?_r=2
- Lim, Sherilyn. "Ruyi restaurant relies on robot wok and automatic boiler for cooking." Soshiok.com. Dec. 7, 2010. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://soshiok.com/article/14011
- Lucy, Evan. "Sex Robot Initially Designed as a Health Aid." Discovery News. Feb. 9, 2010. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://news.discovery.com/tech/sex-robot-initially-health-aid.html
- Ngo, Denise. "Student-Created Wok Robot Can Cook 600 Chinese Dishes." Popular Science. April 13, 2010. (Dec. 8, 2010) http://www.popsci.com/gadgets/article/2010-04/students-invent-robot-cooks-600-chinese-dishes
- Sharkley, Noel. Personal interview. May 25, 2010.
- Streit, Valerie. "Robot musician improvises, jams with humans." CNN Tech. April 29, 2010. (Dec. 6, 2010) http://articles.cnn.com/2010-04-29/tech/robot.musician_1_humans-and-robots-shimon-music-technology?_s=PM:TECH
- Strickland, Jonathan. "What's the technological singularity?" HowStuffWorks.com. Oct. 15, 2008. (Dec. 6, 2010) http://computer.howstuffworks.com/technological-singularity.htm
- Vangobot.com. 2010. (Dec. 7, 2010) http://www.vangobot.com/
- "Voyager: The Interstellar Mission." NASA. Oct. 19, 2010. (Dec. 6, 2010)http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/interstellar.html