What experts think of robots’ threats and benefits to humanity
Each day, Herman Gomez watches as his team of seven robots makes its rounds through Adventist Health White Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles. Supplied by the robot manufacturer Xenex, these robots look exactly like R2-D2 from Star Wars and disinfect rooms using UV light throughout the day, providing a second level of sanitation that cleans whatever micro-organisms were left behind by the human cleaners that came first.
On this episode of Fortune Brainstorm, a podcast detailing how technology is changing our lives, Gomez––along with several other experts in the field of robotics––speaks with Fortune’s Michal Lev-Ram and Brian O’Keefe about how robots are currently being integrated into society alongside humans.
“You will see [the robots] being deployed all throughout the day, 24 hours a day because we have so many isolation rooms,” says Gomez, who oversees the environmental services department at the hospital. “After all the surgeries have been completed for the day, our [environmental services] professionals go in there to clean the room, and then they also deploy the Xenex UV light disinfection robot to the room to still make sure that everything has been disinfected completely.”
While Gomez focuses on robots’ capacity for good, Fortune senior writer Jeremy Kahn joins the podcast to discuss the potential threats these cleaning robots, which he describes as the “gateway drug of robotics,” could pose to human jobs.
“Some of these robots eliminate jobs, and some of them are designed to eliminate jobs,” Kahn says. “One of the ways that companies who make the cleaning robots justify the cost is that, over time, they cost less than it would cost to have a cleaning company in there every night for years. During the pandemic, there’s been such a demand for cleaning that it hasn’t actually resulted in too many job losses. What’s happened is they’ve just redeployed the cleaners to do those high-touch areas that the robots can’t really do. Instead of having the humans doing the floor cleaning, they have the humans doing the fittings in the bathroom or the handles on the doors and the railings, and they just let the robot do the floors. But in the future, it might be the case that they don’t need as many cleaners, and then those people will lose their jobs.”
At about the half way mark of the podcast, Lev-Ram and O’Keefe bring on Dr. Mariana Matus, CEO and cofounder of Biobot Analytics, to talk about how robots can be designed to do a job humans have no interest in doing themselves in the first place: collecting data from our sewage.
To hear more about what Dr. Matus’ robots do for the communities they work in and to listen to an MIT professor theorize what the future holds in terms of robotic intelligence, listen to the episode above.
Correction, October 8, 2020: A previous version of this article misstated Dr. Mariana Matus’ name.