Discrete and Process Automation

Seven Things a Robot Can Do, and Three More That It Can't

09 September 2017

Humanoid companion robot Pepper. Image credit: Asturio Cantabrio, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.Humanoid companion robot Pepper. Image credit: Asturio Cantabrio, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

As a concept, robots – machines capable of autonomously carrying out tasks – have been around since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. Archimedes, a Greek mathematician who died in the third century B.C., invented many of the mechanical systems used in robotics today. Despite this long history, however, it may still come as a surprise to see just how far the technology has come; many of us encounter robots primarily in science-fiction, where humanoid friends or foes serve as assistants (think C-3PO) or arch-nemeses (think Skynet and the T-800).

Amazon uses robots as warehouse workers. Image credit: Amazon.com.Amazon uses robots as warehouse workers. Image credit: Amazon.com.

But in reality, robots – many of which look nothing like humans – are present in many sectors of industry, and they possess capabilities that often eclipse those of their flesh-and-blood counterparts. Here’s a list of seven things that robots can do – along with a few that they can’t.

  1. Clean house. Robot vacuums like iRobot’s Roomba have been around for some time, but the ranks of the autonomous cleaning brigade have expanded to include robot floor-scrubbers, gutter cleaners, pool cleaners and even a self-cleaning litter box.
  2. Work in a warehouse. Robots represent a significant segment of the warehouse workforce in marketplace organizations like Amazon. Compared to human workers, whom they often work alongside, they are able to haul heavier packages, pack inventory more tightly, and reduce handling time. They can also be used to deliver packages with door-to-door service and, of course, they can work around the clock without ever getting tired.
  3. Farm. Robots are well-suited to the labor-intensive tasks of farming, such as harvesting crops. They can also be used for horticultural tasks like pruning, weeding and spraying; and for livestock tasks like shearing sheep, milking cows and even castrating bulls.
  4. Service customers. There are robot bartenders that know how to make every drink ever recorded, robot pharmacists that may do a better job of checking for prescription drug interactions, and human-shaped robot greeters that can welcome and inform customers as they walk through the doors of a business. In that last category, one can include Pepper -- a humanoid robot designed with an ability to read human emotions and adapt its behavior to match.
  5. Provide eldercare. Humanoid robots are finding their ways into nursing homes, reminding residents when to take their medications, taking vitals and offering the ability to videoconference with friends, family and health care providers. They are also able to track indicators of dementia exhibited by the patients they serve.
  6. Fight wars. Unmanned vehicles can perform reconnaissance and surveillance on air, land and sea; can locate and defuse bombs -- and, increasingly, can engage in combat. Under Geneva Conventions standards, military robots cannot be fully autonomous, i.e., they must include human input at certain intervention points. But the technology to build lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) is in sight, and whether or not the standards will stand up to advancements in robot technology is uncertain.
  7. Write articles (!). Yes, even the job of producing an article like this one can be done by a robot – especially the aspects of it that involve poring through data to produce research. Along the same lines, searching for instances of a phrase or concept within hundreds of documents – a practice common at law firms – can be done by a robot with nary a complaint. But it’s not just the background for stories that can be autonomously produced; it’s the writing itself. Stories with a lot of numerical analysis (think business or sports, for instance) are especially suited to the robot mind; the average reader might never notice the difference. A company called Narrative Science currently offers a subscription-based service called Quill that is designed to turn data into “human-sounding narratives.”

IED detonator robot being used in Iraq. Image credit: Lance Cpl. Bobby J. Segovia/U.S. Dept. of Defense, via Wikimedia Commons.IED detonator robot being used in Iraq. Image credit: Lance Cpl. Bobby J. Segovia/U.S. Dept. of Defense, via Wikimedia Commons.

That’s quite the list. But if all of this talk about robot capabilities gives one pause, especially upon contemplation that this is only the beginning, it might be helpful to add in some counter-considerations. Here are a few things that robots can’t do:

  1. Feel empathy. Robots might be able to stand in for short-term companionship in much the same way as a television set does for some. But it’s probably safe to say that they will never be able to truly empathize with the day-to-day struggles of human existence because, ultimately, they are not human themselves.
  2. Provide parenting. Sure, they can tell bedtime stories and can be a real asset in relating to kids with autism, thanks to the way they can take the fear of interacting with other people out of the equation. And “robot nannies” are actually a thing, which is not surprising considering the amount of time and energy that child-rearing requires. But genuine attachment is critical to human child development. Robots cannot provide the crucial love and support that is clearly the purview of parents.
  3. Be creative. Maybe it depends on one’s definition of creativity, and whether or not you think the writer of this article was man or machine may depend on how well it conforms to that standard. But that aside, it’s hard (no, impossible) to imagine that a non-human could ever write, or paint or perform in a way that speaks directly to the human soul. If Shakespeare had been a robot, his words would have been just that: words, words, words.

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