Your Next Doctor May Not Be Human

A six-foot-long, snakelike figure climbs slowly out of a manhole. No, this isn't a mythical alligator from the sewers of New York City. It's a robot employed by Robotics Cabling in Berlin to string fiber-optic cable under city streets. The machine is waterproof, impervious to smell, and downright dismissive of rats. Squeezing into even 20-cm-wide sewer pipes, the robot installs a half-mile of cable per day. That's eight times the output of traditional cable-stringing methods, says Henrik Marczinski, project manager at the Berlin company.

Sewers are a far cry from the customary posts robots occupy in auto and electronics factories. Although manufacturing still employs the bulk of the robot population--more than 750,000 machines worldwide, roughly half of them in Japan--today's new-generation robots are a far more rambunctious and eclectic lot. And like people, they're often hitched to a PC, or lugging one. Consequently, they're one-fifth cheaper than before, when big computer controls were required. That opens up scads of new jobs, from picking tomatoes in California to trimming the fat from lamb chops in Spanish meat-processing plants.

Prized for fearlessly tackling dangerous work, robots have long since proved their mettle by exploring Mars, venturing into the craters of volcanos in Alaska and Antarctica, and defusing bombs. To help clean up hazardous waste sites, RedZone Robotics Inc. in Homestead, Pa., makes machines that sneer at radioactivity and toxic chemicals. "The $200 billion nuclear-weapons cleanup should extend into the 2020s," says J.Todd Simonds, president of RedZone.

Robots also proved early on that they could outclass humans in precision work. Now, they're plying their skills in medicine. McKesson HBOC Inc. (MCK ) markets a mechanical pharmacist's helper to portion out prescriptions. The first hip-replacement surgery by a robot was performed in 1990--on a dog. By the late 1990s, robodocs were doing human heart surgery. Soon, they'll even be tapped to do eyes. "There's a lot of surgery going on" in European countries where it has been approved, says Donald A. Vincent, executive vice-president of the Robotic Industries Assn. in Ann Arbor, Mich. "It should really take off soon in the U.S."

Factories remain robots' dominant stomping grounds. In Japanese auto plants, there's one robot for every six workers, nearly triple the U.S. ratio. However, many aging bots will be retired in the next three years, bringing the total down to 384,000. In contrast, the International Federation of Robots in Stockholm predicts the installed base in the rest of the world will post double-digit growth and top 500,000 units in 2003. With just over 155,000 units, the U.S. will be in second place after Japan. Western Europe will have 262,300 units installed.

Doubtless, many of these newcomers will prove adept at ever-trickier jobs. That means humans will have to work hard to keep their jobs--perhaps by getting retrained as robot handlers. But some jobs are just made for machines. Who but a bot, after all, would want to make a career of shinnying through sewers?

By Stephen Baker and Emilie King in Paris

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