Robots are becoming prominent in workplace, but still need humans to work them

Could a robot someday take your job? In the last five years, the number of robots doing work in Jacksonville has nearly tripled, from 90 to approximately 230 and still climbing.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Could a robot someday take your job? In the last five years, the number of robots doing work in Jacksonville has nearly tripled, from 90 to approximately 230 and still climbing.

According to a November 2017 poll taken by Axios and Survey Monkey 28 percent of people believe technology will create more jobs than it displaces and 55 percent believes technology will take away from jobs than it creates.

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Some business companies have named some of the jobs being replaced by robots or technology the fastest, including crop farmworkers, travel agents, medical lab technologists, air traffic controllers and legal assistants.

First Coast News went around Jacksonville to learn more about the robots taking on human jobs, starting with work being done in the engineering department of the University of North Florida, led by Stephen Stagon, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

“He has a task called a Dab, which is the Dab dance, which the students have done,” Stagon said, showing us their robot named “Baxter.”

“One of the biggest misconceptions I think, that you just take a robot and let it do its thing, that’s not the case at all, robots are stupid, and robots run into faults,” Stagon said.

Stagon says they’re not here to replace us; they’re here to work with us.

“How many times does your phone freeze? Closeout and you have to re-open? That’s the same thing that’s happening with these robots, someone has to be there watching it, tuning the robot,” Stagon said. “Humans are good at synthesizing new information and solving a problem, a robot can repeat a task that has been laid out for it, but even the most sophisticated robot is not good as synthesizing something new.”

So Robots like Tranformers’ Optimus Prime and Interstellar’s TARS are far from reality.

“Nowhere close, that’s out there, that’s science fiction still,” Stagon said.

What is a reality right now are robots helping local businesses thrive thanks to Stagon’s class.

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“They’re not trying to replace a human, they’re trying to take a task that is so mundane, mind-numbing and difficult for the human to do repeatedly all day, it’s putting the brownie in the bag and tying the ribbon on it. You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to tie that ribbon on because it takes a lot of mental concentration.”

Stagon’s seniors are working with local companies to create actual robots for them to increase product flow and revenue. One of their clients is Helga Langthon, the co-owner of Mocha Misk’I Brownie Shop downtown.

“This is the part that takes the longest because currently we do it manually,” Langthon said, wrapping a brownie. “And this is where they are helping us.”

They are no strangers to bulk orders, forcing them to wrap hundreds of brownies at a time, complete with ribbons. UNF is building them a robot to do that for them instead so they can focus on other tasks. They will get their robot in April.

Just down the street from Langthon’s shop is a massive robotics corporation many people have probably never heard of, Sally Corporation.

Lauren Wood, the marketing director, says they create robots for theme parks, event venues and museums.

“We brought robotics to life in character form, not just machinery that might do a task, but really perform for you, entertain you,” Wood said.

That includes a robot by the name of “Sally” who plays the piano.

“Sally behind the piano is a perfect example of how you can use a robotics character to take the place of a human job, Sally at the piano will entertain for hotel lobbies, bars, restaurants, even clubs and people will think she’s real, the client or owner doesn’t have to pay her by the hour and she’ll sit there for twenty years if you’d like her to play,” she said.

With about 45 artists on hand they are constantly creating and enhancing new characters to be sent out all over the world.

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Another kind of robot can come in the form of a touch-screen.

Tammy Hackley, the supervisor of six McDonalds in Jacksonville, says kiosks have resulted in more employees.

“Because it’s a computer. If it runs out of paper someone has to fill the paper, if we have to reboot the kiosk someone has to be there to that,” Hackley said. “The digital kiosk has helped us to add staff versus reducing staff, that was a concern that some of our customers had, they thought the kiosk would take jobs but we actually have to hire people because we have to hire people who can come out here and help customers utilize the technology.”

Back on UNF’s campus students, like Harris Newsteder, are trying to engineer new robots that are autonomous.

“There’s a lot of interest in mining on Mars, so this robot has to start in an area, move to another side of the field, there are craters and rocks in between, dig, bring it back, then dump it in a meter that half off the ground,” Newsteder said.

Their Mars robot won them 4th place out of 50 teams at a robotics competition last year, making them the top in Florida.

“This is an extra-curricular activity, we don’t do it for a class,” Newsteder said.

And their robot Baxter does offer more than just dance moves. He can help make the workplace safer.

“Let’s say it’s next to a blade where someone can get hurt, next to something hot where someone can get burned, this can come in and move different things and do the task repetitively,” Stagon said.

So while the world of robotics is growing it seems they cannot exist without us yet. They can increase our productivity and our revenue, give a different outlet to a younger generation, entertain and inform us, collect data from other planets and help us with mundane or dangerous tasks, they cannot think, create or solve as we, their creators can, so it’s safe to us we are still the superior species.