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More than a few members of the media likely winced in sympathy last week when they spotted this alarming headline on a Forbes.com news story: "Dozens of MSN Journalists to be Replaced by Robots."
According to Forbes and a host of other online news reports, Microsoft’s long-standing web portal is poised to bid farewell to many of its human contract journalists and replace them with automated systems.
A story in the Seattle Times stated MSN will lay off roughly 50 journalists at the end of June and replace them with robots — AI algorithms that will identify the best stories, rewrite the titles and find the best photos, effectively automating most of the tasks that had been so far performed by humans.
"It’s demoralizing to think machines can replace us but there you go," one of those being let go told the paper.
Another journalist told The Guardian newspaper: "I spend all my time reading about how automation and AI is going to take all our jobs — now it’s taken mine."
Those unlucky journalists may just be the tip of an artificially intelligent iceberg, as we see from today’s fully automated list of Five Cool Jobs That May Soon be Stolen From Puny Humans by Recently Developed Robotic Usurpers:
5) The endangered job: Sheep dog
The robot usurper: It’s a remarkable sight — there’s "Spot" trundling around a New Zealand mountainside and herding a bunch of fluffy white sheep. What makes it even more amazing — and disturbing for some — is that "Spot" is not a living, breathing canine farm worker.
No, "Spot" is Boston Dynamics’ famed four-legged robot dog that has been seen in previous videos opening doors, dancing to music, and has been used by authorities in Singapore to roam public parks and remind people to maintain a safe social distance from each other. In a new video posted by robotics software company Rocos, Spot is seen roaming the New Zealand grasslands, displaying its shepherding skills with a group of confused sheep.
The video highlights various advancements in precision agriculture that the world’s most advanced robodog — guided by infrared cameras, real-time mapping technologies and advanced sensors — could make possible, such as corralling sheep without the supervision of humans. "Robots, like Spot from Boston Dynamics, increase accuracy in yield estimates, relieve the strain of worker shortages, and create precision in farming," Rocos wrote in its YouTube video description. Rocos chief executive David Inggs chirped: "Our customers are augmenting their human workforces to automate physical processes that are often dull, dirty, or dangerous."
Spot can check on crops and clamber over rough terrain, but not everyone is keen on robotic sheepdogs. "The robot might be an amazing tool for lots of things but it is worthless and unwanted as a sheepdog," James Rebanks, who wrote a book about his life as a shepherd in England, told theverge.com. "No one who works with sheep needs or wants this — it is a fantasy."
4) The endangered job: Massage therapist
The robot usurper: If you are uncomfortable around robots, this item will no doubt rub you the wrong way. In October 2017, Emma started work at the NovaHealth Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic in Singapore.
Specializing in back and knee massages, Emma was quickly doing the work of two human masseuses. As you have no doubt already deduced, Emma is a robot; her name is short for Expert Manipulative Massage Automation, an intelligent device that mimics the human palm and thumb to replicate therapeutic massages such as shiatsu and physiotherapy.
"Emma 3.0 — the first to go into public service — is a third more compact than the first prototype unveiled last year, offers a wider range of massage programmes and provides a massage that is described by patients as almost indistinguishable from a professional masseuse," according to the website phys.org. Emma doesn’t look especially human.
Instead, we’re talking about a fully articulated robotic limb with six degrees of freedom and a touchscreen. Mounted at the end of the arm are two soft massage tips made from silicon, which can be warmed for comfort. Emma is also equipped with advanced sensors and diagnostic functions — the data is sent to a cloud server — which can measure the precise stiffness of a muscle or tendon.
The device was developed by AiTreat, a technology startup company launched at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. "By using Emma to do the labour-intensive massages, we can now offer a longer therapy session for patients while reducing the cost of treatment," AiTreat founder Albert Zhang said in a news release. "The human therapist is then free to focus on other areas, such as the neck and limb joints, which Emma can’t massage at the moment." The future is looking a lot brighter — for people with bad backs.
3) The endangered job: Delivery person
The robot usurper: You’ve ordered something special online and you can’t wait for it to arrive at your doorstep. Suddenly, there’s a loud knock, you fling open the door and there, thrusting a package at you, is the delivery guy. But, assuming you have been paying attention, you know this is not an ordinary human delivery guy.
No, this is Digit, a two-legged humanoid robot designed to move in a more dynamic fashion than old-school robots do. We’re talking nimble limbs and a torso packed with sensors that allow it to navigate complex environments and carry out tasks, like delivering your long-awaited package. Digit was created by Agility Robotics, which is committed to building legged machines that can go anywhere a person can go.
In 2019, they unveiled Digit, which has advanced feet that allow it to balance on one foot and overcome various obstacles, new sensors to perceive and map the world for navigation, and customer-ready, powerful onboard computer hardware. Speaking of customers, the very first out of the gate was Ford, which snapped up the first two Digit robots in January. Ford formed a partnership with the robotics firm to develop a solution for so-called "last mile" deliveries. "Even if Ford had a perfect self-driving car today, when it comes to deliveries, the human recipient still needs to meet the vehicle to grab their goods," according to cenet.com. "That’s where Digit is meant to come in.
The friendly robot can complete a delivery process, though Ford and Agility think it’ll be a splendid addition to warehouses as well." Ford has been testing how Digit and its autonomous vehicles can work together to transport a package the last few metres to a customer, going from the sidewalk to the door. "Digit’s unique design allows it to tightly fold itself up for easy storage in the back of a vehicle until it’s called into action. Once a vehicle arrives at its destination, this two-legged robot grabs the package inside the vehicle and carries out the final step in the delivery process," according to inceptivemind.com. "And in case, if it encounters an unexpected obstacle, it can send an image back to the vehicle to leverage additional computing power."
2) The endangered job: Standup comedian
The robot usurper: So this robot walks into a bar to star in a live comedy show. If you think we’re kidding, the joke’s on you.
There Jon was, onstage, telling his audience he has a hard time getting bookings. "They always think I’m too robotic," Jon deadpans, according to sciencedaily.com. If big laughs follow, he chirps: "Please tell the booking agents how funny that joke was." If there’s the sound of crickets, he follows up with: "Sorry about that. I think I got caught in a loop. Please tell the booking agents that you like me ... that you like me ... that you like me ... that you like me."
Which is killer material, especially (and we hope you figured this out) if you happen to be a cute little robot. According to sciencedaily.com and the CBC, Jon the Robot, with assistance from Oregon State University researcher Naomi Fitter, recently wrapped up a 32-show tour of comedy clubs in greater Los Angeles and in Oregon, generating guffaws and more importantly data that scientists and engineers can use to help robots and people relate more effectively with one another via humour. Fitter, whose hobby is standup, programs Jon, but also writes the jokes, books his stand-up gigs and holds the microphone for him as he performs. "Social robots and autonomous social agents are becoming more and more ingrained in our everyday lives," said Fitter, assistant professor of robotics in the OSU College of Engineering. "Lots of them tell jokes to engage users — most people understand that humour, especially nuanced humour, is essential to relationship building.
But it’s challenging to develop entertaining jokes for robots that are funny beyond the novelty level." Jon needed to boost its level of comedic intelligence — to learn based on how an audience responded when and how to deliver the next line or what joke to tell. So Fitter programmed Jon with what she calls, "adaptive timing," enabling Jon to hear the laughter and wait for it to die down before delivering a follow up joke. "Hello, I’m Jon," the robot says on video, pausing. "Of course, that is not my real name, but humans have trouble pronouncing (he emits dialup sounds)." It’s all in the name of science, but it sounds funny to us.
1) The endangered job: NHL hockey player
The robot usurper: If you grew up watching the TV series Lost in Space and the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, you probably assume it’s only a matter of time before robots take over the world and make humans their slaves. But even in your wildest dreams, you likely never expected to see the day a robot would be able to strap on the blades and duke it out with Connor McDavid and Alexander Ovechkin in the NHL.
Well, that day isn’t here yet, but it feels like it’s getting closer because academics in Switzerland last year revealed a robot than can teach itself to walk, roller skate — and even skate on ice. It’s called "Skaterbot" and it was created from 3D-printed modular parts. "I envision a moment in the not-too-distant future where it will be as easy to create robots as it is to currently make structures out of LEGO blocks," Stelian Coros, a professor at the Computational Robotics Lab at ETH Zurich and Skaterbot’s co-creator, told the BBC.
"The only thing we tell it is how one ice skate behaves on ice," Coros said, explaining that after this stage the robot figures out how to move across the ice by itself. The modular robot can then work out where its four connected legs need to be balanced in order to steer itself around on its tiny skates. In last year’s ETH Zurich’s RETHINKING DESIGN exhibition in Davos, part of the World Economic Forum 2019, Coros and his team displayed two versions of the Skaterbot — one with wheeled legs and another with ice-skating blades. A video showed Skaterbot on the ice competing with players from the local hockey club in Davos.
"Considering these were our first baby steps on ice, I think that our robot did quite well. But it surely shows us that we have much more to go in in terms of being able to match the skill and ability that we see in humans," Coros said on the video, in which Skaterbot displays all the hockey sense of a traffic cone. Considering it doesn’t have arms, high-sticking shouldn’t be a problem.
Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.
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