Emerging Technologies

From robotic dogs to magnetic slime: 9 ways robots are helping humans

Robotic arms building a car in a factory.

Robot co-workers are assembling a new future of jobs. Image: Unsplash/ Lenny Kuhne

Victoria Masterson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Ian Shine
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Technological Transformation

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This article was first published on 8 April 2022. It was updated on 19 July 2023.

  • Robots are helping humans in a growing number of places – from archaeological sites to disaster zones and sewers.
  • The most recent robotic inventions can gather data, squeeze into small spaces – even call an elevator.
  • Automation is expected to be a net job creator in most sectors, according to the World Economic Forum's latest Future of Jobs Report.

Workplace robots are often associated with pushing human workers out of their jobs.

But in numerous settings around the world, robots and related technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI), are helping humans with a range of work. This includes high-risk and complex jobs – and work in places where humans can’t go.

Here are nine examples.

Robots like Spot the dog are helping humans in dangerous workplaces like Pompeii.
Robots like Spot are helping humans navigate dangerous workplaces. Image: Archaeological Park of Pompeii

Pompeii’s robot dog

In the ancient Roman ruins of Pompeii, a robot dog called Spot has been enlisted to carry out safety patrols.

The four-legged robot can inspect “even the smallest of spaces in complete safety”, says the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, which looks after conservation for the site near Naples in Italy.

Spot will also help inspect underground tunnels dug by illegal relic hunters that are being uncovered around Pompeii. The city and its 20,000 inhabitants were buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79. The data Spot records will help his human colleagues manage the safety of the site and its workers.

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Robot deliveries

In Zurich, Switzerland, a company called Swiss-Mile has developed a robot on four wheels that can speed up the delivery of goods in cities.

As well as being able to drive itself around, the “humanoid-quadruped transformer” can climb stairs and stand on its two back wheels. This means it can call an elevator and, “in future, grab packages and open doors”, the company says.

Deliveries typically get caught up in traffic as they near their destination. The idea is to let the robot handle these “final mile” delivery challenges in a faster, more energy efficient way.

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Robotics in social care

In Scotland, a big area of focus is the use of robotics and AI in social care settings. An assisted living lab that looks like a real home has been created at the National Robotarium, a new centre for robotics and AI.

Scientists there are using robotics, AI and sensor technologies to carry out functions like monitoring long-term health conditions. Technology can also help people with tasks like making phone calls, switching on lights, opening doors and watching TV.

The aim is to help people live more independently and also to give carers a break. Scotland has 1.1 million unpaid carers, the National Robotarium says, and a fifth of them say they haven’t had any time off in more than five years.

Globally, nurses and carers are in increasingly short supply and robots are seen as a possible solution to the staffing crisis. In Geneva, a social robot powered by AI – which looks uncannily like its creator, Nadia Magnenat Thalmann – has just been upgraded with ChatGPT-3 to improve its conversational skills. The robot, called Nadine, told Reuters it had sung and played bingo with residents at a nursing home in Singapore.

Assisted living robots could partner with carers in social care settings.
Assisted living robots could partner with carers in social care settings. Image: National Robotarium
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Robots as worksite assistants

The Atlas robot shot to internet fame in August 2021 after popping some parkour moves for a YouTube video. The latest clip of the robotic assistant might not be as amusing, but the company behind it, Boston Dynamics, says it represents much more of a breakthrough.

It shows the robot grabbing a tool bag for a worker who is located on an elevated platform, constructing a walkway using a wooden plank in order to reach the worker, then throwing the bag to the worker.

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Sounds simple? Well it's not. Getting a robot to accurately throw something rather than just jump around involves giving it an awareness of what will happen when it applies forces to objects. In other words, you have to make it understand Newton’s third law – that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, Boston Dynamics says.

So what's next for Atlas? "Making smart decisions about how to move through the world ... will be essential for turning Atlas into a robot that can do meaningful work outside of the lab," its creators say.

Soft robots for tight spots

Robots come in all shapes and sizes. At the Chinese University of Hong Kong, scientists are discovering new uses for a robot made from slime, the New Scientist reported.

The robot is described as the consistency of custard. But it has been mixed with magnetic particles that can be moved and controlled using external magnets. Because it’s soft, the slime can squeeze through narrow spaces with a 1.5mm diameter and grasp solid objects by wrapping around them.

In machines, the slime can perform functions like repairing circuits, the researchers say in the journal Advanced Functional Materials. In humans, the slime can potentially “swallow and transport harmful things” – like a dangerous object ingested by mistake.

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Search and rescue robots

In disaster zones that are hard to reach and a danger to life, robots provide invaluable support to human search and rescue teams.

These include rugged small vehicles with tracks, cameras and sensors that can search inside rubble and climb over obstacles. Teledyne FLIR, a sensing technology specialist based in Oregon in the United States, used robots like these in June 2021 when a tower block partially collapsed in the Miami suburb of Surfside in Florida.

In Japan, university teams are developing another type of search and rescue robot – a hose-like robot with a video camera called the Active Scope Camera that can search inside collapsed buildings. Drones also help search and rescue teams see disaster sites from above.

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Underground robots

Sewers are another setting where robots are helping humans tackle tough jobs.

Fatbergs – big lumps of fat, nappy wipes and other items that have been flushed down drains – are a growing problem. They clog up water pipes and can cause floods.

Sewer Robotics, a company in the Netherlands, specializes in making crawler robots that inspect, clean, cut and maintain underground pipes. Its robots are armed with high-pressure water jets that can break up fatbergs, reported Wired.

Green robots

Green technology needs maintenance and inspection – but imagine the challenge of checking all the bolts on wind turbines.

A new project has developed a six-legged robot to take the job on. The robot can autonomously inspect the bolts, taking away the need for humans to loosen and retighten them, reports Marine Technology News.

The project could save hundreds of millions of dollars in Europe each year, alone, while also extending turbine life spans and reducing the risks faced by human workers.

Farming robots

US start-up Verdant Robotics has developed a robot to help farmers. The technology can weed, fertilize and tackle disease in crops as well as collect data on the whole farm down to the plant level.

Its developers say it'll help cut pesticide use through their "precision agriculture" model. The company recently raised nearly $50 million in funding.

“Verdant’s ultra-precision spraying platform is here today – adding new value while doing more with less. Thanks to the ongoing support from our investors, growers can thrive as we deploy this transformative technology together,” said Gabe Sibley, PhD, co-founder and CEO of Verdant Robotics.

Automation at work

Alongside specialist robots like these, other types of automation are changing the nature of work.

In its Future of Jobs Report 2023, the World Economic Forum predicts that "all but two technologies are expected to be net job creators in the next five years: humanoid robots and non-humanoid robots".

In a blog for the Forum, automation expert Pascal Bornet says intelligent automation will free up workers to take on more creative elements of their work.

“It helps employees to do work faster, better, but also to have more time to focus on what really matters,” he says.

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