Robots taking over

Whenever people complain that robots are taking away jobs, I always respond “then learn to build robots”. I finally took my own advice. This is the project that I’ve been working on lately:

I’m sure you’re amazed, but you probably want to know what it is. This is an automatic soil respiration chamber. Perhaps you weren’t aware, but soil breathes. Contained within the dirt is an entire universe of plants and microorganisms. Some of these take in carbon dioxide, others breathe it out. The result is some net movement of gasses from the soil to the atmosphere. As explained in the previous post, these are the kinds of things my lab is interested in measuring.

It isn’t as complicated as my unorganized jumble of wires and pipes might make you think. Here’s how it works. First, the whole thing is meant to be outside on top of soil where small plants are growing. The gray PVC chamber lowers onto the collar. The machine begins pumping gas out of the chamber and into a gas analyzer which measures the concentration of carbon dioxide over time. It then pumps the gas back into the chamber to form a complete circuit of air. After it has recorded enough measurements, the chamber opens and expells all of the air. A second chamber, made of clear PVC, is lowered and the same proccess occurs. In this case, sunlight is allowed to penetrate the chamber and photosynthesis can occur, giving us a different measure of carbon dioxide flux. We now know how much carbon dioxide is moving from the soil to the atmosphere over the small patch of land that the chamber covers.

The brain of the machine is a device called a datalogger. It’s basically a small computer that can store data and programs and control other devices. In this case, the datalogger is controlling a series of valves. The machine is powered by pressurized gas. When the correct valve opens, pressurized air is sent into the piston and this opens or closes the chamber. All of this is automated so that I can simply deploy it in the field in arctic Alaska and sit back as the data rolls in.

This project brings up the interesting issue of automation in science. Most scientists I’m sure have had the “a robot could be doing this” moment more than once. Robots are taking over jobs in all sectors, not only research. I personally am not too worried about this and embrace the progress. These automated machines can do the job more efficiently and accurately and can free up our time to do more meaningful things. How can you avoid becoming obsolete in this increasingly automatic world? First off, train yourself in a broad range of skills. Only knowing how to do one thing is a sure way to be replaced by robots. And second, keep your mind sharp so that if your job (or entire industry) gets outsourced to robots, you’re still capable of learning to do something new. The job market 20 years from now is likely to be full of jobs that haven’t even been thought of today. Be ready to adapt.

Any other thoughts on the role of robots in our world? Please share.


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