Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN ) CEO Jeff Bezos recently captured the public's imagination by unveiling his latest R&D initiative, Amazon Prime Air, which promises delivery by automated mini-drones in 30 minutes or less. There are, of course, limitations -- the prototype drones can only carry packages lighter than five pounds over a maximum distance of 10 miles.
When I first heard Bezos' announcement, I laughed. Seriously, could tiny robots like the ones in Batteries Not Included fly packages to my doorstep one day? Will delivery personnel from FedEx, UPS, or the U.S. Postal Service soon lose their jobs? More importantly, will the FAA approve of Amazon unleashing clouds of mini-drones into the air on a daily basis?
Yet it appears that Amazon could be cleared for takeoff, since Congress has already ordered the FAA to clear the skies for commercial drone use by Sept. 30, 2015.
Although the use of drones, which are more associated with killing enemy combatants than delivering Christmas gifts, raises some chilling questions about the world of the near future, Bezos' idea isn't a new one.
Let's take a look at three other ways that robots are already replacing the need for flesh and blood workers across the world.
Robots are replacing soldiers, police officers, doctors... and maids?
Do you own one of iRobot's (NASDAQ: IRBT ) popular Roomba automated vacuum cleaners? If so, you actually own a product directly related to expensive military hardware.
Back in 2011, iRobot was best known for making military robots, used for bomb sweeps and tactical operations. Those robots saved countless soldiers' lives by locating explosives and surveying hostile areas. However, President Obama eventually reduced the American military presence in the Middle East, causing iRobot's revenue from defense contracts, which accounted for 40% of it 2011 revenue, to plunge 57% in 2012 and another 30% in 2013.
iRobot CEO Colin Angle bounced back quickly, however, and invested in expanding the market presence of Roomba, which was originally introduced in 2002. Roomba became a hit product, giving birth to a new line of home robots, including the floor-scrubbing Scooba, the pool-cleaning Mirra, and the gutter-cleansing Looj. Although the use of iRobot's military and security robots declined overseas, they are still widely used by U.S. police departments.
Today, iRobot is looking to replace doctors on the field with RP-Vita, a 5-foot-tall remote-presence robot controlled by an Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) iPad, which allows doctors to reach patients miles away. The RP-Vita allows doctors to talk to patients in remote or quarantined areas through video chat and treat them with onboard diagnostic equipment.
Will robots replace drivers as well?
Meanwhile, Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL ) has been experimenting with driverless cars since 2005, increasing the chance that human drivers could eventually be replaced by robots. Through the combined use of proximity sensors, cameras, GPS, and Google Maps, Google's cars could theoretically be safer than vehicles driven by humans.
Yet just like Amazon, Google's vision has been questioned by many people. Unlike the autopilot feature of aircraft, which guides them through relatively uncrowded airspace, driverless cars need to navigate many more threats -- such as traffic signals, road conditions, other vehicles, and pedestrians, to name a few. It will be much tougher to convince consumers that driverless cars can be fully automated without a human driver.
That hasn't stopped Google from lobbying heavily to get robotic car laws passed, however. In June 2011, Nevada became the first state to permit the operation of driverless cars. The first license for an autonomous vehicle was issued in May 2012, for a Toyota Prius running on Google's driverless technology. Florida and California soon followed suit, in April and September of 2012, respectively, legalizing driverless cars for testing purposes.
Although driverless cars would be the first major advance in vehicle technology since the electric car, think of what it could mean for the 3.5 million truck drivers and 650,000 bus drivers in the United States. Would these jobs remain relevant once their employers realize that they can replace them with machines that don't eat, sleep, have accidents, or unionize?
Will robots be smart enough to perform quality control tasks?
We should also take a look at the original source of industrial robots -- assembly lines. Industrial robots have been around since 1938, and have steadily replaced the need for manual assembly, due to their speed and higher degree of accuracy.
Between 1998 and 2011, the global supply of industrial robots jumped from 69,000 to 166,000. That growth won't slow down anytime soon, due to higher demand for quickly and cheaply assembled products such as computers, game consoles, and smartphones.
Foxconn, the Taiwan-based manufacturer of products from Apple, Sony (NYSE: SNE ) , Hewlett-Packard, and many other top tech companies, knows this problem all too well. Foxconn is being squeezed by an increased demand for cheaper electronics products and the rising costs of living in China -- which have led to a series of worker suicides, the admitted use of child labor, and an embarrassing loss of quality of control, which resulted in 6 million to 8 million defective iPhones being returned by Apple.
Foxconn CEO Terry Guo's answer to these problems is an ambitious one -- he intends to replace his workers with 1 million robots by 2014. It is currently unknown how many workers this master plan will displace and which positions will be rendered obsolete.
However, many of Foxconn's problems, as highlighted by the recent "blue light of death" incident with Sony's Playstation 4, stem from poor quality control. Workers have gone on strike due to the stressful nature of Foxconn's quality control jobs, which are highly repetitive and physically exhausting.
Last year, Foxconn already added X-rays to the quality control process to reduce defects, so it's not hard to see the company go a few steps further to fully automate the quality control process with robots that can run additional tests to ensure that its phones are properly sealed and undamaged.
A final thought
The fear that machines will eventually replace human workers can be traced all the way back to the Industrial Revolution. However, today's machines are much smarter, thanks to powerful computing hardware, satellites, and cloud-based connectivity.
Considering that these robots can already replace delivery personnel, soldiers, cleaning staff, drivers, and assembly line workers, will they disrupt the job market in the United States over the next century? Imagine if fast food companies, fed up with the current demands for raising the minimum wage to $15, opted to replace their workforces with robots instead.
If companies start to automate all manual labor, will there be a spike in unemployment and an increased demand for more technologically proficient individuals to control and maintain these machines? Also, would you trust your deliveries to Amazon's probes or get in one of Google's driverless vehicles?
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