November 16, 2012      

It’s not by the big-picture news stories of robots in outer space or deep diving the Pacific or performing wonders in hospital surgical suites that will define the emergence of robots among us.

Rather, it will be by the slow disappearance of simple, everyday jobs that our neighbors, friends and relatives perform daily that will enable the transformation of work.

In the not-too-distant future, kids may take school trips to factories and be horrified to learn from their tour guides that humans once upon a time worked in such places. Then again, maybe not.

The lesson of the slide rule makers and the hand-held calculator

Keuffel & Esser, founded in 1867 in Manhattan, was the sales and category leader in the once booming market for slide rules. The burgeoning company even went public on NASDAQ in 1965, but by 1982 was forced to file for bankruptcy. The reason: technology.

The disruptive technology for Keuffel & Esser was introduced in 1972 by Hewlett-Packard: the HP-35 was the world’s first scientific pocket calculator with trigonometric and exponential functions.

The HP-35 had all and more of a slide rule’s functions and came as a cool-looking device that fit in one’s pocket.

The job of slide rule maker disappeared from Help Wanted adverts and the world soon forget about what they were and who made them. Except, of course, the hundreds of workers who had labored for decades in K&E?s big factory in Hoboken, NJ.

Baxter and its growing band of next-generation, co-worker robots

Technology, in the form of robots, is on the march, checking off likely candidate jobs for work transformation and then showing up at work sites to show business owners how well they can do the job.

The rule of thumb for switching out a human for a robot is twice the human’s annual salary. Since new-generation robots such as Baxter and its kind ( others are soon to arrive from Universal Robotics, ABB, FANUC and Yaskawa) run about $20K each, the business decision is easy to enough to see.

It’s said that $500B of the US GDP’s total output of $15T (2011) could, in the near future, be thrown on the backs of robots and that these machines at critical mass could make offshoring of US manufacturing a distant memory real fast.

The jobs most at risk…

So, who exactly are the neighbors, friends and relatives closest in jeopardy of getting axed by these disruptors? During 2012, the following jobs have seen significant robot tryouts, nearly all with excellent results: Butchers, dairy farmers, furniture makers, kitchen helpers, lumberjacks, machinists, miners, parts packers and pharmacists.

…and the contenders readying to replace them:

Salon Bot Primps for $61B Hair Care Industry

Humans No Match For RoboButcher In $23B Poultry Industry

Dairy farmer
Robotic Milkers on Ohio Farm

Furniture maker
Robot System Impacts $87 Billion Furniture Industry

Kitchen helper
Culinary Robotics: Kitchen-ready Buddies to Take Home

Robot Lumberjack Measures Up 300M Underwater Trees Worth $50B

New Danish Robot Revolutionizes Manufacturing

Rio Tinto’s $3.6B Bid to Marry Mining to Robotics

Parts packer
Perfect Bin-Picking Robots for Mainstream Manufacturing

PharmacyBot: Miracle Rx for Drug Errors

See related: Meet Baxter: Rethink Robotics’ Next-Gen Robot

Okay then, so what’s left for the air breathers?

Robots are coming to the workplace as inexorably as the HP-35 came for Keuffel & Esser’s slide rule and its employees. That’s the march of technology. For humanity, a very special future is gradually opening. And it’s a good one. Some insight into that coming future was offered by Andrew McAfee in his TEDxBoston talk, Race Against the Machine:

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