Machines can do a lot of things that humans used to do.
You can put your debit card into an ATM and watch it spit out money. You don't have to talk to a cashier at the grocery store anymore if you use the self-checkout line. And you can drive through tollbooths without stopping, because a machine can read an electronic pass in your car as you sail through.
But machines, whether guided by an algorithm or a human, can do a lot more than that.
Here are seven things you might not know are automated.
Surgeons can use robots to help with everything from hysterectomies to heart repairs. Doctors manipulate the robots using a 3D view finder. Proponents say robots can get to hard-to-reach places, and they limit the size of incisions and blood loss, which can speed up recovery times. But critics say
that the risk of complications from mechanical medicine isn't actually lower, and they worry about how doctors are trained to use the robots.
Some universities - especially large public schools - receive thousands of applications and don't have time read all of them. So they use computers to screen people, and whoever makes it past the baseline is then considered by actual human readers. Administrators in the huge University of California system use what they call a comprehensive approach to evaluate applicants that considers factors like community involvement and grades. But applications must squeeze through a computer screening before they get in front of human eyes. Some critics complain using computers disadvantages students who might have a good reason for failing to meet base requirements, because the computer doesn't give them a chance to explain.
The military employs drones, which are autonomous weapons that can be operated remotely by a human pilot. Right now, the military does not have drones that act on their own, but organizations like Human Rights Watch
worry that it's a possibility and that as technology advances, so will civilian deaths. They say fully autonomous drones would be incapable of feeling emotion and more likely to pursue risky actions.
Robots trade your money. Algorithms may now trigger 70 percent of all trades in U.S. equities, according to The Atlantic
. They can trade faster, and some say smarter, than humans. But they can also mess up. Malfunctioning algorithms at the New York Stock Exchange damaged some trading stations several years ago, and critics worry that as more companies employ robots, the potential for damage will soar.
Bomb-removal squads have a job that's every bit as dangerous as it sounds. So technicians use robots that they control remotely to investigate
suspicious objects. The robots are trained to disarm or disrupt bombs, and to pick up and place suspicious devices in safe containers. They take some training and are not always as fast as humans, but they allow officers to stay a safe distance away.
Driverless trains operate in many cities around the world, especially in Asia and Europe. Transit agencies say the concept means more trains and better service, because they can take money that was devoted to paying drivers and steer it toward improving services. Cities have been slow to implement the idea, because automating a system requires significant funding
upfront, and critics worry about possible malfunctions. Some passengers have also expressed reservations about riding a train without a human they can see in control.
A decade ago, the idea of a driverless car would have seemed improbable. But Google has garnered widespread attention for designing exactly that. While the likelihood of the average person owning a driverless car anytime soon is pretty slim, the potential is there. After all, as the Economist pointed out
, we already have cars that park themselves, obey a cruise control command, and warn us if we stray into another lane. A driverless car works by using software that takes a whole bunch of sensors into account, analyzes what's going on around the car, and adjusts accordingly. In other words, there is no remote control the way there currently is with a drone.
Proponents say the cars would reduce vehicle deaths, because there would be fewer human errors, and they would also allow users to perform other tasks while they ride to work or run errands. But critics worry the software could malfunction, and the Economist noted
that traffic cops could become expendable, along with companies that make steering wheels and other manual controls. Skeptics even speculate that autocars could hurt tourism, because people might choose to travel overnight in their cars instead of getting a hotel room.