Ever since automated machines and simple robots found a place in industry, factory workers have been concerned about their jobs.
These workers could be rightfully concerned. Industrial robots have entered the manufacturing field in full force. These robots appear in automotive factories, foundries, and even in warehouses.
Recently, the Business Insider reported that industrial robotics could cause an unemployment rate of 50 to 75 percent. (1) However, manufacturing jobs are not the only ones that are endangered.
Robotics could replace millions of transportation, business and financial operational jobs such as professional drivers, data entry clerks, and bookkeepers. However, even astronaut jobs could be on the chopping block.
Can Astronauts Be Replaced?
If astronauts are going to be replaced, their predecessors are likely to be the Robonaut 2 (R2). This robot is the first humanoid robot to be launched into space.
The robot was launched from earth on February 24th, 2011 to be tested on the International Space Station and, so far, has been quite successful.
NASA describes R2 as a “state of the art highly dexterous anthropomorphic robot” (2) that “will expand our ability for construction and discovery”. (2)
R2 is a cooperative project by NASA Johnson Space Center, General Motors, and Oceaneering Space Systems. Recently, this state of the art machine’s design team won the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space Automation and Robotics Award for 2013. (3)
Assisting Human Counterparts
According to NASA, this award-winning piece of technology was not designed to totally replace astronauts. Instead, it was designed to be able to complete menial tasks, freeing up the astronauts to conduct more meaningful job duties. NASA described R2’s function as:
“One advantage of a humanoid design is that Robonaut can take over simple, repetitive, or especially dangerous tasks on places such as the International Space Station. Because R2 is approaching human dexterity, tasks such as changing out an air filter can be performed without modifications to the existing design.”
With such tasks being completed by the robot, the astronauts could focus on scientific research and explorations. However, what is interesting is General Motor’s role in the Robonaut 2’s design.
At first glance, one could attempt to make the argument that the automotive manufacturer will leverage the partnership to replace as many of its human workers with R2-like robots in its factories.
Though a fascinating argument, that is not exactly what GM is getting out of the partnership, at least not currently. One of the many developments that have come out of the project is the Robo-Gloves, also known as the Human Grasp Assist device. These robotic gloves would help astronauts and automotive factory workers complete repetitive tasks while reducing the risk of injury.
In a press release, Dana Komin, the Manufacturing Engineering Director for Global Automation Strategy and Execution at General Motors, said:
“When fully developed, the Robo-Glove has the potential to reduce the amount of force that an autoworker would need to exert when operating a tool for an extended time or with repetitive motions.” (4)
If implemented in the auto industry, Robo-Glove could reduce the risk of Cubital tunnel syndrome, DeQuervain’s syndrome, and Dupuytren’s contracture, along with other strains on the body. Such a device would not only reduce worker injuries, but also worker absenteeism and worker’s compensation claims.
Therefore, the innovative R2 humanoid robot is not only making large strides in the area of space research and exploration, but in manufacturing, in particular, the auto industry.
However, when thinking of a robot with such human-like movements successfully completing tasks on the International Space Station, it is easy to let the mind wander and wonder just how far off into the future is a robot-integrated society along with what would be the effects of such an integration.