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#435167 A Closer Look at the Robots Helping Us ...

Buck Rogers had Twiki. Luke Skywalker palled around with C-3PO and R2-D2. And astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) now have their own robotic companions in space—Astrobee.

A pair of the cube-shaped robots were launched to the ISS during an April re-supply mission and are currently being commissioned for use on the space station. The free-flying space robots, dubbed Bumble and Honey, are the latest generation of robotic machines to join the human crew on the ISS.

Exploration of the solar system and beyond will require autonomous machines that can assist humans with numerous tasks—or go where we cannot. NASA has said repeatedly that robots will be instrumental in future space missions to the moon, Mars, and even to the icy moon Europa.

The Astrobee robots will specifically test robotic capabilities in zero gravity, replacing the SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellite) robots that have been on the ISS for more than a decade to test various technologies ranging from communications to navigation.

The 18-sided robots, each about the size of a volleyball or an oversized Dungeons and Dragons die, use CO2-based cold-gas thrusters for movement and a series of ultrasonic beacons for orientation. The Astrobee robots, on the other hand, can propel themselves autonomously around the interior of the ISS using electric fans and six cameras.

The modular design of the Astrobee robots means they are highly plug-and-play, capable of being reconfigured with different hardware modules. The robots’ software is also open-source, encouraging scientists and programmers to develop and test new algorithms and features.

And, yes, the Astrobee robots will be busy as bees once they are fully commissioned this fall, with experiments planned to begin next year. Scientists hope to learn more about how robots can assist space crews and perform caretaking duties on spacecraft.

Robots Working Together
The Astrobee robots are expected to be joined by a familiar “face” on the ISS later this year—the humanoid robot Robonaut.

Robonaut, also known as R2, was the first US-built robot on the ISS. It joined the crew back in 2011 without legs, which were added in 2014. However, the installation never entirely worked, as R2 experienced power failures that eventually led to its return to Earth last year to fix the problem. If all goes as planned, the space station’s first humanoid robot will return to the ISS to lend a hand to the astronauts and the new robotic arrivals.

In particular, NASA is interested in how the two different robotic platforms can complement each other, with an eye toward outfitting the agency’s proposed lunar orbital space station with various robots that can supplement a human crew.

“We don’t have definite plans for what would happen on the Gateway yet, but there’s a general recognition that intra-vehicular robots are important for space stations,” Astrobee technical lead Trey Smith in the NASA Intelligent Robotics Group told IEEE Spectrum. “And so, it would not be surprising to see a mobile manipulator like Robonaut, and a free flyer like Astrobee, on the Gateway.”

While the focus on R2 has been to test its capabilities in zero gravity and to use it for mundane or dangerous tasks in space, the technology enabling the humanoid robot has proven to be equally useful on Earth.

For example, R2 has amazing dexterity for a robot, with sensors, actuators, and tendons comparable to the nerves, muscles, and tendons in a human hand. Based on that design, engineers are working on a robotic glove that can help factory workers, for instance, do their jobs better while reducing the risk of repetitive injuries. R2 has also inspired development of a robotic exoskeleton for both astronauts in space and paraplegics on Earth.

Working Hard on Soft Robotics
While innovative and technologically sophisticated, Astrobee and Robonaut are typical robots in that neither one would do well in a limbo contest. In other words, most robots are limited in their flexibility and agility based on current hardware and materials.

A subfield of robotics known as soft robotics involves developing robots with highly pliant materials that mimic biological organisms in how they move. Scientists at NASA’s Langley Research Center are investigating how soft robots could help with future space exploration.

Specifically, the researchers are looking at a series of properties to understand how actuators—components responsible for moving a robotic part, such as Robonaut’s hand—can be built and used in space.

The team first 3D prints a mold and then pours a flexible material like silicone into the mold. Air bladders or chambers in the actuator expand and compress using just air.

Some of the first applications of soft robotics sound more tool-like than R2-D2-like. For example, two soft robots could connect to produce a temporary shelter for astronauts on the moon or serve as an impromptu wind shield during one of Mars’ infamous dust storms.

The idea is to use soft robots in situations that are “dangerous, dirty, or dull,” according to Jack Fitzpatrick, a NASA intern working on the soft robotics project at Langley.

Working on Mars
Of course, space robots aren’t only designed to assist humans. In many instances, they are the only option to explore even relatively close celestial bodies like Mars. Four American-made robotic rovers have been used to investigate the fourth planet from the sun since 1997.

Opportunity is perhaps the most famous, covering about 25 miles of terrain across Mars over 15 years. A dust storm knocked it out of commission last year, with NASA officially ending the mission in February.

However, the biggest and baddest of the Mars rovers, Curiosity, is still crawling across the Martian surface, sending back valuable data since 2012. The car-size robot carries 17 cameras, a laser to vaporize rocks for study, and a drill to collect samples. It is on the hunt for signs of biological life.

The next year or two could see a virtual traffic jam of robots to Mars. NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover is next in line to visit the Red Planet, sporting scientific gadgets like an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer for chemical analyses and ground-penetrating radar to see below the Martian surface.

This diagram shows the instrument payload for the Mars 2020 mission. Image Credit: NASA.
Meanwhile, the Europeans have teamed with the Russians on a rover called Rosalind Franklin, named after a famed British chemist, that will drill down into the Martian ground for evidence of past or present life as soon as 2021.

The Chinese are also preparing to begin searching for life on Mars using robots as soon as next year, as part of the country’s Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover program. The mission is scheduled to be the first in a series of launches that would culminate with bringing samples back from Mars to Earth.

Perhaps there is no more famous utterance in the universe of science fiction as “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” However, the fact is that human exploration of the solar system and beyond will only be possible with robots of different sizes, shapes, and sophistication.

Image Credit: NASA. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434767 7 Non-Obvious Trends Shaping the Future

When you think of trends that might be shaping the future, the first things that come to mind probably have something to do with technology: Robots taking over jobs. Artificial intelligence advancing and proliferating. 5G making everything faster, connected cities making everything easier, data making everything more targeted.

Technology is undoubtedly changing the way we live, and will continue to do so—probably at an accelerating rate—in the near and far future. But there are other trends impacting the course of our lives and societies, too. They’re less obvious, and some have nothing to do with technology.

For the past nine years, entrepreneur and author Rohit Bhargava has read hundreds of articles across all types of publications, tagged and categorized them by topic, funneled frequent topics into broader trends, analyzed those trends, narrowed them down to the most significant ones, and published a book about them as part of his ‘Non-Obvious’ series. He defines a trend as “a unique curated observation of the accelerating present.”

In an encore session at South by Southwest last week (his initial talk couldn’t fit hundreds of people who wanted to attend, so a re-do was scheduled), Bhargava shared details of his creative process, why it’s hard to think non-obviously, the most important trends of this year, and how to make sure they don’t get the best of you.

Thinking Differently
“Non-obvious thinking is seeing the world in a way other people don’t see it,” Bhargava said. “The secret is curating your ideas.” Curation collects ideas and presents them in a meaningful way; museum curators, for example, decide which works of art to include in an exhibit and how to present them.

For his own curation process, Bhargava uses what he calls the haystack method. Rather than searching for a needle in a haystack, he gathers ‘hay’ (ideas and stories) then uses them to locate and define a ‘needle’ (a trend). “If you spend enough time gathering information, you can put the needle into the middle of the haystack,” he said.

A big part of gathering information is looking for it in places you wouldn’t normally think to look. In his case, that means that on top of reading what everyone else reads—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Economist—he also buys publications like Modern Farmer, Teen Vogue, and Ink magazine. “It’s like stepping into someone else’s world who’s not like me,” he said. “That’s impossible to do online because everything is personalized.”

Three common barriers make non-obvious thinking hard.

The first is unquestioned assumptions, which are facts or habits we think will never change. When James Dyson first invented the bagless vacuum, he wanted to sell the license to it, but no one believed people would want to spend more money up front on a vacuum then not have to buy bags. The success of Dyson’s business today shows how mistaken that assumption—that people wouldn’t adapt to a product that, at the end of the day, was far more sensible—turned out to be. “Making the wrong basic assumptions can doom you,” Bhargava said.

The second barrier to thinking differently is constant disruption. “Everything is changing as industries blend together,” Bhargava said. “The speed of change makes everyone want everything, all the time, and people expect the impossible.” We’ve come to expect every alternative to be presented to us in every moment, but in many cases this doesn’t serve us well; we’re surrounded by noise and have trouble discerning what’s valuable and authentic.

This ties into the third barrier, which Bhargava calls the believability crisis. “Constant sensationalism makes people skeptical about everything,” he said. With the advent of fake news and technology like deepfakes, we’re in a post-truth, post-fact era, and are in a constant battle to discern what’s real from what’s not.

2019 Trends
Bhargava’s efforts to see past these barriers and curate information yielded 15 trends he believes are currently shaping the future. He shared seven of them, along with thoughts on how to stay ahead of the curve.

Retro Trust
We tend to trust things we have a history with. “People like nostalgic experiences,” Bhargava said. With tech moving as fast as it is, old things are quickly getting replaced by shinier, newer, often more complex things. But not everyone’s jumping on board—and some who’ve been on board are choosing to jump off in favor of what worked for them in the past.

“We’re turning back to vinyl records and film cameras, deliberately downgrading to phones that only text and call,” Bhargava said. In a period of too much change too fast, people are craving familiarity and dependability. To capitalize on that sentiment, entrepreneurs should seek out opportunities for collaboration—how can you build a product that’s new, but feels reliable and familiar?

Muddled Masculinity
Women have increasingly taken on more leadership roles, advanced in the workplace, now own more homes than men, and have higher college graduation rates. That’s all great for us ladies—but not so great for men or, perhaps more generally, for the concept of masculinity.

“Female empowerment is causing confusion about what it means to be a man today,” Bhargava said. “Men don’t know what to do—should they say something? Would that make them an asshole? Should they keep quiet? Would that make them an asshole?”

By encouraging the non-conforming, we can help take some weight off the traditional gender roles, and their corresponding divisions and pressures.

Innovation Envy
Innovation has become an over-used word, to the point that it’s thrown onto ideas and actions that aren’t really innovative at all. “We innovate by looking at someone else and doing the same,” Bhargava said. If an employee brings a radical idea to someone in a leadership role, in many companies the leadership will say they need a case study before implementing the radical idea—but if it’s already been done, it’s not innovative. “With most innovation what ends up happening is not spectacular failure, but irrelevance,” Bhargava said.

He suggests that rather than being on the defensive, companies should play offense with innovation, and when it doesn’t work “fail as if no one’s watching” (often, no one will be).

Artificial Influence
Thanks to social media and other technologies, there are a growing number of fabricated things that, despite not being real, influence how we think. “15 percent of all Twitter accounts may be fake, and there are 60 million fake Facebook accounts,” Bhargava said. There are virtual influencers and even virtual performers.

“Don’t hide the artificial ingredients,” Bhargava advised. “Some people are going to pretend it’s all real. We have to be ethical.” The creators of fabrications meant to influence the way people think, or the products they buy, or the decisions they make, should make it crystal-clear that there aren’t living, breathing people behind the avatars.

Enterprise Empathy
Another reaction to the fast pace of change these days—and the fast pace of life, for that matter—is that empathy is regaining value and even becoming a driver of innovation. Companies are searching for ways to give people a sense of reassurance. The Tesco grocery brand in the UK has a “relaxed lane” for those who don’t want to feel rushed as they check out. Starbucks opened a “signing store” in Washington DC, and most of its regular customers have learned some sign language.

“Use empathy as a principle to help yourself stand out,” Bhargava said. Besides being a good business strategy, “made with empathy” will ideally promote, well, more empathy, a quality there’s often a shortage of.

Robot Renaissance
From automating factory jobs to flipping burgers to cleaning our floors, robots have firmly taken their place in our day-to-day lives—and they’re not going away anytime soon. “There are more situations with robots than ever before,” Bhargava said. “They’re exploring underwater. They’re concierges at hotels.”

The robot revolution feels intimidating. But Bhargava suggests embracing robots with more curiosity than concern. While they may replace some tasks we don’t want replaced, they’ll also be hugely helpful in multiple contexts, from elderly care to dangerous manual tasks.

Back-storytelling
Similar to retro trust and enterprise empathy, organizations have started to tell their brand’s story to gain customer loyalty. “Stories give us meaning, and meaning is what we need in order to be able to put the pieces together,” Bhargava said. “Stories give us a way of understanding the world.”

Finding the story behind your business, brand, or even yourself, and sharing it openly, can help you connect with people, be they customers, coworkers, or friends.

Tech’s Ripple Effects
While it may not overtly sound like it, most of the trends Bhargava identified for 2019 are tied to technology, and are in fact a sort of backlash against it. Tech has made us question who to trust, how to innovate, what’s real and what’s fake, how to make the best decisions, and even what it is that makes us human.

By being aware of these trends, sharing them, and having conversations about them, we’ll help shape the way tech continues to be built, and thus the way it impacts us down the road.

Image Credit: Rohit Bhargava by Brian Smale Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434508 The Top Biotech and Medicine Advances to ...

2018 was bonkers for science.

From a woman who gave birth using a transplanted uterus, to the infamous CRISPR baby scandal, to forensics adopting consumer-based genealogy test kits to track down criminals, last year was a factory churning out scientific “whoa” stories with consequences for years to come.

With CRISPR still in the headlines, Britain ready to bid Europe au revoir, and multiple scientific endeavors taking off, 2019 is shaping up to be just as tumultuous.

Here are the science and health stories that may blow up in the new year. But first, a note of caveat: predicting the future is tough. Forecasting is the lovechild between statistics and (a good deal of) intuition, and entire disciplines have been dedicated to the endeavor. But January is the perfect time to gaze into the crystal ball for wisps of insight into the year to come. Last year we predicted the widespread approval of gene therapy products—on the most part, we nailed it. This year we’re hedging our bets with multiple predictions.

Gene Drives Used in the Wild
The concept of gene drives scares many, for good reason. Gene drives are a step up in severity (and consequences) from CRISPR and other gene-editing tools. Even with germline editing, in which the sperm, egg, or embryos are altered, gene editing affects just one genetic line—one family—at least at the beginning, before they reproduce with the general population.

Gene drives, on the other hand, have the power to wipe out entire species.

In a nutshell, they’re little bits of DNA code that help a gene transfer from parent to child with almost 100 percent perfect probability. The “half of your DNA comes from dad, the other comes from mom” dogma? Gene drives smash that to bits.

In other words, the only time one would consider using a gene drive is to change the genetic makeup of an entire population. It sounds like the plot of a supervillain movie, but scientists have been toying around with the idea of deploying the technology—first in mosquitoes, then (potentially) in rodents.

By releasing just a handful of mutant mosquitoes that carry gene drives for infertility, for example, scientists could potentially wipe out entire populations that carry infectious scourges like malaria, dengue, or Zika. The technology is so potent—and dangerous—the US Defense Advances Research Projects Agency is shelling out $65 million to suss out how to deploy, control, counter, or even reverse the effects of tampering with ecology.

Last year, the U.N. gave a cautious go-ahead for the technology to be deployed in the wild in limited terms. Now, the first release of a genetically modified mosquito is set for testing in Burkina Faso in Africa—the first-ever field experiment involving gene drives.

The experiment will only release mosquitoes in the Anopheles genus, which are the main culprits transferring disease. As a first step, over 10,000 male mosquitoes are set for release into the wild. These dudes are genetically sterile but do not cause infertility, and will help scientists examine how they survive and disperse as a preparation for deploying gene-drive-carrying mosquitoes.

Hot on the project’s heels, the nonprofit consortium Target Malaria, backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, is engineering a gene drive called Mosq that will spread infertility across the population or kill out all female insects. Their attempt to hack the rules of inheritance—and save millions in the process—is slated for 2024.

A Universal Flu Vaccine
People often brush off flu as a mere annoyance, but the infection kills hundreds of thousands each year based on the CDC’s statistical estimates.

The flu virus is actually as difficult of a nemesis as HIV—it mutates at an extremely rapid rate, making effective vaccines almost impossible to engineer on time. Scientists currently use data to forecast the strains that will likely explode into an epidemic and urge the public to vaccinate against those predictions. That’s partly why, on average, flu vaccines only have a success rate of roughly 50 percent—not much better than a coin toss.

Tired of relying on educated guesses, scientists have been chipping away at a universal flu vaccine that targets all strains—perhaps even those we haven’t yet identified. Often referred to as the “holy grail” in epidemiology, these vaccines try to alert our immune systems to parts of a flu virus that are least variable from strain to strain.

Last November, a first universal flu vaccine developed by BiondVax entered Phase 3 clinical trials, which means it’s already been proven safe and effective in a small numbers and is now being tested in a broader population. The vaccine doesn’t rely on dead viruses, which is a common technique. Rather, it uses a small chain of amino acids—the chemical components that make up proteins—to stimulate the immune system into high alert.

With the government pouring $160 million into the research and several other universal candidates entering clinical trials, universal flu vaccines may finally experience a breakthrough this year.

In-Body Gene Editing Shows Further Promise
CRISPR and other gene editing tools headed the news last year, including both downers suggesting we already have immunity to the technology and hopeful news of it getting ready for treating inherited muscle-wasting diseases.

But what wasn’t widely broadcasted was the in-body gene editing experiments that have been rolling out with gusto. Last September, Sangamo Therapeutics in Richmond, California revealed that they had injected gene-editing enzymes into a patient in an effort to correct a genetic deficit that prevents him from breaking down complex sugars.

The effort is markedly different than the better-known CAR-T therapy, which extracts cells from the body for genetic engineering before returning them to the hosts. Rather, Sangamo’s treatment directly injects viruses carrying the edited genes into the body. So far, the procedure looks to be safe, though at the time of reporting it was too early to determine effectiveness.

This year the company hopes to finally answer whether it really worked.

If successful, it means that devastating genetic disorders could potentially be treated with just a few injections. With a gamut of new and more precise CRISPR and other gene-editing tools in the works, the list of treatable inherited diseases is likely to grow. And with the CRISPR baby scandal potentially dampening efforts at germline editing via regulations, in-body gene editing will likely receive more attention if Sangamo’s results return positive.

Neuralink and Other Brain-Machine Interfaces
Neuralink is the stuff of sci fi: tiny implanted particles into the brain could link up your biological wetware with silicon hardware and the internet.

But that’s exactly what Elon Musk’s company, founded in 2016, seeks to develop: brain-machine interfaces that could tinker with your neural circuits in an effort to treat diseases or even enhance your abilities.

Last November, Musk broke his silence on the secretive company, suggesting that he may announce something “interesting” in a few months, that’s “better than anyone thinks is possible.”

Musk’s aspiration for achieving symbiosis with artificial intelligence isn’t the driving force for all brain-machine interfaces (BMIs). In the clinics, the main push is to rehabilitate patients—those who suffer from paralysis, memory loss, or other nerve damage.

2019 may be the year that BMIs and neuromodulators cut the cord in the clinics. These devices may finally work autonomously within a malfunctioning brain, applying electrical stimulation only when necessary to reduce side effects without requiring external monitoring. Or they could allow scientists to control brains with light without needing bulky optical fibers.

Cutting the cord is just the first step to fine-tuning neurological treatments—or enhancements—to the tune of your own brain, and 2019 will keep on bringing the music.

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#434276 Industrial Workers Will Soon Don ...

Sarcos Robotics’ full-body suits will let factory workers lift 90 kilograms without breaking a sweat Continue reading

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#434270 AI Will Create Millions More Jobs Than ...

In the past few years, artificial intelligence has advanced so quickly that it now seems hardly a month goes by without a newsworthy AI breakthrough. In areas as wide-ranging as speech translation, medical diagnosis, and gameplay, we have seen computers outperform humans in startling ways.

This has sparked a discussion about how AI will impact employment. Some fear that as AI improves, it will supplant workers, creating an ever-growing pool of unemployable humans who cannot compete economically with machines.

This concern, while understandable, is unfounded. In fact, AI will be the greatest job engine the world has ever seen.

New Technology Isn’t a New Phenomenon
On the one hand, those who predict massive job loss from AI can be excused. It is easier to see existing jobs disrupted by new technology than to envision what new jobs the technology will enable.

But on the other hand, radical technological advances aren’t a new phenomenon. Technology has progressed nonstop for 250 years, and in the US unemployment has stayed between 5 to 10 percent for almost all that time, even when radical new technologies like steam power and electricity came on the scene.

But you don’t have to look back to steam, or even electricity. Just look at the internet. Go back 25 years, well within the memory of today’s pessimistic prognosticators, to 1993. The web browser Mosaic had just been released, and the phrase “surfing the web,” that most mixed of metaphors, was just a few months old.

If someone had asked you what would be the result of connecting a couple billion computers into a giant network with common protocols, you might have predicted that email would cause us to mail fewer letters, and the web might cause us to read fewer newspapers and perhaps even do our shopping online. If you were particularly farsighted, you might have speculated that travel agents and stockbrokers would be adversely affected by this technology. And based on those surmises, you might have thought the internet would destroy jobs.

But now we know what really happened. The obvious changes did occur. But a slew of unexpected changes happened as well. We got thousands of new companies worth trillions of dollars. We bettered the lot of virtually everyone on the planet touched by the technology. Dozens of new careers emerged, from web designer to data scientist to online marketer. The cost of starting a business with worldwide reach plummeted, and the cost of communicating with customers and leads went to nearly zero. Vast storehouses of information were made freely available and used by entrepreneurs around the globe to build new kinds of businesses.

But yes, we mail fewer letters and buy fewer newspapers.

The Rise of Artificial Intelligence
Then along came a new, even bigger technology: artificial intelligence. You hear the same refrain: “It will destroy jobs.”

Consider the ATM. If you had to point to a technology that looked as though it would replace people, the ATM might look like a good bet; it is, after all, an automated teller machine. And yet, there are more tellers now than when ATMs were widely released. How can this be? Simple: ATMs lowered the cost of opening bank branches, and banks responded by opening more, which required hiring more tellers.

In this manner, AI will create millions of jobs that are far beyond our ability to imagine. For instance, AI is becoming adept at language translation—and according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for human translators is skyrocketing. Why? If the cost of basic translation drops to nearly zero, the cost of doing business with those who speak other languages falls. Thus, it emboldens companies to do more business overseas, creating more work for human translators. AI may do the simple translations, but humans are needed for the nuanced kind.

In fact, the BLS forecasts faster-than-average job growth in many occupations that AI is expected to impact: accountants, forensic scientists, geological technicians, technical writers, MRI operators, dietitians, financial specialists, web developers, loan officers, medical secretaries, and customer service representatives, to name a very few. These fields will not experience job growth in spite of AI, but through it.

But just as with the internet, the real gains in jobs will come from places where our imaginations cannot yet take us.

Parsing Pessimism
You may recall waking up one morning to the news that “47 percent of jobs will be lost to technology.”

That report by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne is a fine piece of work, but readers and the media distorted their 47 percent number. What the authors actually said is that some functions within 47 percent of jobs will be automated, not that 47 percent of jobs will disappear.

Frey and Osborne go on to rank occupations by “probability of computerization” and give the following jobs a 65 percent or higher probability: social science research assistants, atmospheric and space scientists, and pharmacy aides. So what does this mean? Social science professors will no longer have research assistants? Of course they will. They will just do different things because much of what they do today will be automated.

The intergovernmental Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released a report of their own in 2016. This report, titled “The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries,” applies a different “whole occupations” methodology and puts the share of jobs potentially lost to computerization at nine percent. That is normal churn for the economy.

But what of the skills gap? Will AI eliminate low-skilled workers and create high-skilled job opportunities? The relevant question is whether most people can do a job that’s just a little more complicated than the one they currently have. This is exactly what happened with the industrial revolution; farmers became factory workers, factory workers became factory managers, and so on.

Embracing AI in the Workplace
A January 2018 Accenture report titled “Reworking the Revolution” estimates that new applications of AI combined with human collaboration could boost employment worldwide as much as 10 percent by 2020.

Electricity changed the world, as did mechanical power, as did the assembly line. No one can reasonably claim that we would be better off without those technologies. Each of them bettered our lives, created jobs, and raised wages. AI will be bigger than electricity, bigger than mechanization, bigger than anything that has come before it.

This is how free economies work, and why we have never run out of jobs due to automation. There are not a fixed number of jobs that automation steals one by one, resulting in progressively more unemployment. There are as many jobs in the world as there are buyers and sellers of labor.

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