In the 2016 Economic Report of the President, released in February, the chapter “Technology and Innovation” contains some interesting findings on robotics. Robots currently are being used primarily in manufacturing activities—particularly automotive and consumer electronics (approximately 40 percent and 20 percent of installations, respectively)—with the United States trailing both Japan and Germany. The report discusses how increased robot utilization might affect jobs and notes the concern robots could take a substantial number of jobs away from workers, rendering their jobs obsolete and leaving them unemployed. An earlier (2013) Oxford University report, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?,” concludes approximately 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at “high risk” of being eliminated by automation at some (undetermined) point in the future. Most of those jobs are in transportation and logistics, office and administrative support, and production. For the HVAC mechanics/technicians reading this, before you panic about a robot taking your job, watch the YouTube video of last year’s DARPA Robotics Challenge finals below, and you’ll see they still have a way to go!
Of course, robots aren’t only being used in manufacturing. Da Vinci Surgery claims more than 3 million minimally invasive surgeries, while the executive vice president of Titan Medical (developer of the SPORT Surgical System), himself a surgeon, believes autonomous robot surgeons will actually improve patient outcomes. In addition to minimally invasive, medically necessary procedures (cardiac, colorectal, gynecologic, head and neck, thoracic, urologic), surgical robots routinely are used in hair grafts, hip and knee replacements, and Lasik vision correction.
Autonomous cars and trains also have been in the news … mostly for crashes. The most recent was a minor low-speed collision involving Google’s self-driving car and a bus, in which the computer was thought to be at least partly to blame for the mishap.
Robotic weapons, including autonomous ones—but not, we hope, like the ones portrayed in movies like “The Matrix” and “Transformers”—also are becoming relatively common. The U.S. Navy has had the Phalanx gun, a shipboard defensive weapon requiring no human intervention, for nearly 40 years. The U.S. Army has several drones, including Reaper, and a tracked military robot that can carry a rifle, TALON. The Israelis have an autonomous drone, Harop, that homes in on enemy radio transmissions, and Russia has a remotely piloted tank and—as recently seen on cable news—a remote-controlled robot that carries a rifle and grenade launchers. China has both drones and robots, and South Korea reportedly has tested a robot sentry that uses computer vision to autonomously detect and fire at human targets at a range of nearly two miles along its border with North Korea.
So, maybe the idea of drones flying parts to a job site and an ACtech-bot arriving in an autonomous car to install them isn’t that farfetched! Just make sure your ACtech-bot has an EPA 608 card before you let it open any refrigerant circuits … or the inspector-bot will be paying you a visit.