The robot revolution has arrived

Machines now perform all sorts of tasks: They clean big stores, patrol borders, and help children with autism. But will they improve our lives?

With a firm yet delicate grip, a robot hand at the Robotics and Biology Laboratory at the Technical University of Berlin picks up a flower with its pneumatic fingers. Recent advances have brought robots closer than ever to mimicking human abilities.

If you’re like most people, you’ve probably never met a robot. But you will.

I met one on a windy, bright day last January, on the short-grass prairie near Colorado’s border with Kansas, in the company of a rail-thin 31-year-old from San Francisco named Noah Ready-Campbell. To the south, wind turbines stretched to the horizon in uneven ranks, like a silent army of gleaming three-armed giants. In front of me was a hole that would become the foundation for another one.

A Caterpillar 336 excavator was digging that hole—62 feet in diameter, with walls that slope up at a 34-degree angle, and a floor 10 feet deep and almost perfectly level. The Cat piled the dug-up earth on a spot where it wouldn’t get in the way; it would start a new pile when necessary. Every dip, dig, raise, turn, and drop of the 41-ton machine required firm control and well-tuned judgment. In North America, skilled excavator operators earn as much as $100,000 a year.

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