Nine Tasks Robots Can Do That May Surprise You

Machines can cook your dinner, fill your prescriptions, make your shoes and much, much more

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SoftBank's humanoid robot "Pepper" can lead funerals. Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO/Alamy Live News

News of a Japanese robot conducting Buddhist funerals got us thinking about how our robot-filled future is fast becoming our robot-filled present. Robots—machines that can be programmed to perform complex human tasks (or tasks that humans can’t or shouldn’t perform)—are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, and are showing up in more unexpected areas of life. They staff hotel desks, fill pharmacy prescriptions, lead workout classes and patrol for sharks. Here’s a roundup of some of the coolest and most unexpected things robots can do for us these days. 

Cook Your Dinner

The Robotic Kitchen, from Moley Robotics, consists of multijointed robotic hands fitted with multiple sensors. The robot can download a recipe via an app and reproduce it exactly. This means celebrity chefs could potentially staff multiple branches of restaurants across the world and expect the dishes to come out identically to their flagships. Moley will release a home version next year, allowing ordinary folks to have professionally prepared meals in the comfort of their own kitchens. 

Fill Your Prescriptions

When the University of California San Francisco Medical Center brought in a “robot pharmacist” called PillPick to pick, count and package pills, its prescription error rate went down from nearly 3 percent to almost 0. The hospital also has robots that prepare IVs, and rolling robots that carry medicine, food and linens to patients’ rooms. As other hospitals adopt similar systems, some (human) pharmacists wonder if their days are numbered

Sew Your T-Shirt

For the past two years, a sewing robot ("sewbot') called LOWRY has been making t-shirts and other simple garments, making as many shirts in an hour as 17 human workers. LOWRY and similar systems stand to replace low-wage workers in places like Southeast Asia and move more production to the United States, a change which could have both upsides and downsides. 

Make Your Sneakers

Grabit, a company that develops machines that use static electricity to pick up items, has recently begun supplying shoemaking robots to Nike. The robot works in conjunction with a human to arrange pieces of the shoe's upper, a puzzle-like process that can take a solo human 10 to 20 minutes. That robot can do it in 50 to 75 seconds. Adidas has also been using robots in shoe production. Another kind of robot, called the Yooshu, can carve custom flipflops to fit your feet. So there's a good chance the next pair of kicks you buy will be robot-made. 

Check You in to Your Hotel

Nagasaki, Japan's Henn na Hotel, which opened in 2015, has a front desk entirely manned ("machined"?) by robots, including a dinosaur and an android. There's a porter robot to take your luggage upstairs, and an in-room concierge robot to answer your questions. While this may seem gimmicky (the hotel is inside a theme park), robots in hotels are no mere novelty: robots are being used to deliver room service, monitor buffets and mix cocktails in hotels and on cruise ships across the world. 

Get You in Shape

In Singapore, a robotic personal trainer is leading workouts for the elderly. RoboCoach, as it's known, has been deployed to various community centers and senior facilities to coach the over-60s in arm exercises. It can slow down or speed up the pace of group workouts to meet different needs, and can monitor whether or not exercises are being done correctly. As the population of developed countries such as Singapore ages rapidly, we're seeing more robots working with seniors: the Paro robot seal that bonds with dementia patients in Japan; Mario, a humanoid robot that plays a similar role with dementia sufferers in Europe; and SAM, a robot that patrols nursing homes to check for safety hazards, just to mention a few. 

Keep You Safe From Sharks

Humans are apparently quite bad at identifying sharks on aerial imagery. Computer vision systems are much better. When you combine these computer systems with drones, you've got a robot shark patroller, set to begin monitoring Australian beaches this month. 

Race Your Camels

Camel-racing, a popular sport on the Arabian peninsula, used to use child slaves as jockeys. Now they've got a more humane (for the humans, if not the camels) alternative: robots. The tiny, humanoid jockeys, which are voice activated, hold whips and control the camels as their owners drive alongside in cars. 

Conduct Your Funeral

Pepper, a customizable android, has lately been taught to lead Japanese funerals. Dressed in a priest's robe, it can chant Buddhist sutras while banging a drum. It can even livestream the funeral for loved ones who can't be there. Though Pepper has yet to lead a real funeral, its promoters say it could help lessen costs for families who can't afford an expensive ceremony. Christians in need of robotic succour can turn to BlessU-2, a robot priest who gives blessings in five languages.