Column Date 2007-11-02

Undocumented robots - will one of them take your job?

Robots are making news these days.

Right in the middle of our national debate on immigration, farmers in California are seriously thinking about replacing illegal farm workers with robots.

An outfit called Vision Robotics, in San Diego, is now working on an eight-armed robot that will roll through orchards, picking apples, oranges and other fruit.

The company sees the day when armies of their robots do all the tedious, labor-intensive work that armies of undocumented workers do today.

And even more advanced robots are in the works, some so sensitive that they can gently pick premium grapes, or clean and core lettuce.

If I were a farmer, I’d be looking to hire every robot who showed up at my door.

With all the political posturing over illegal immigration (it’s an election year), and nobody even close to solving the problem, I’d just want to make sure my crops get picked and don’t rot on the ground.

But hiring robot farm workers raises all sort of new questions: since so many of the world’s robots come from Asia, shouldn’t they have to apply for temporary visas? Do they need to demonstrate specialized skills that current field hands don’t have? Or can they be brought into our country at the whim of big corporations to replace American workers?

And today’s robots can do a lot more than just pick fruit.

In fact, there’s probably a robot out there who can do your job – faster, cheaper and without worrying about a pension.

Honda has a robot that can recognize people and bring them coffee the way they like it. (They’re now leasing these robots to serve as receptionists!)

Toyota has a robot that can play the trumpet.

At a recent Asian economic summit conference, a robot named “Maru” walked around the room serving drinks.

In Japan, you can buy a little service robot named “Enon,” that can carry packages for you, escort your guests, and act as a security guard for your home.

The Swedes have taught a robot named “Lukas” how to do weeding, one of the most despised activities of every gardener I know.

And two robots built by Hitachi actually introduced themselves to reporters at a press conference. Their names are “Pal” and “Chum,” each has a vocabulary of over 100 words and, according to the company, they could be fully trained for office work in a couple of years.

With all this progress, it’s no surprise that in South Korea, a world center of robotics, they have recently begun working on a new robot “Code of Ethics.”

This could be the most revolutionary step of all.

When they learn how to program a code of ethics into a robot U.S. Congressman, I plan to buy one right away.

After all, it would be a lot cheaper than buying the human version.

©2007 Peter Tannen