The robots are coming, sooner or later. Of that I am nearly certain—as is Google, apparently, who has been buying up robotics companies lately. The company also made news when it hired as its director of engineering renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. But robotics is definitely not confined to some distant future. Robots and their engineers are increasingly becoming a part of the here and now.
This 30-second video from U.S. First offers a glimpse inside one of the association's recent March 2014 robotics competition in San Antonio.
As Jeffrey Rubenstone reports in ENR's March 10 cover story, that coming robotics invasion is looking like it will impact the construction industry. Writes Rubenstone: "Recent advances in both lightweight-but-powerful machinery and sophisticated control software are allowing robots to venture into previously uncharted territory, such as construction."
Already, at least one firm is deploying a "semi-autonomous mason" system to place bricks on real construction jobsites, Rubenstone reports. Such a notion certainly can't be very comforting to actual, human masons, of course.
Which leads to the basic question underlying the whole topic of the growing robotics industry: Will robots take our jobs? If you believe the latest reports, the answer seems like it will be: Eventually, yes, some of them.
The question for ENR readers is similar: Will they take our engineering and construction jobs? Well, not yet, at least. But here's another question I have: Is the robotics invasion already stealing away future engineers?
The reason I ask is the seeming increase in robotics education programs, including the one with which I'm familiar, U.S. FIRST. (Full disclosure: my son, who attends an engineering magnet high school, participates in one of its programs.) Founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology"—"FIRST"—the group now boasts that more than 350,000 K-12 students participated in one of its programs during the 2013-2014 season. (FIRST uses a competition model that features different challenges "each season.")
Which brings me back to my question. The reason I wonder if the burgeoning robotics field is already stealing away future civil and structural engineers is because I've seen the hold that robotics has had on my own son. Whereas other fields of engineering caught his interest previously, robotics lately has become his main focus.
And I imagine that that might be the case with some of the other 350,000 kids learning about robotics. Students who were once headed toward the more traditional fields of engineering, construction or architecture, might now be on the path to jobs designing robots. At the same time, it's also just as likely that this promotion of robotics is attracting kids to STEM curriculums who otherwise wouldn't have considered such a path.
Only time will tell how it all shakes out. The video included below, featuring celebrities such as will.i.am and Justin Timberlake, illustrates the ways that groups such as U.S. FIRST are working to promote their STEM-related programs.
A clip from a television special features various celebrities touting the importance of education emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math. It's one example of how this field is being promoted to young people as a topic worthy of their future educational endeavors.