From dealing death to herding cattle, robots report for duty

The use of a robot fitted with explosives to kill Micah Johnson, the gunman who shot 12 Dallas police officers last week, is spurring debate about the legal and ethical implications of such technology in law enforcement.

Yet the incident is only the latest, if perhaps the most dramatic, example of a much larger development: Robots have climbed off our movie and TV screens and into the real world. They're here -- in our homes, workplaces and public spaces -- and they're changing things in profound ways.

If that sounds alarmist, it shouldn't -- at least not necessarily. Robots have been a fact of life for years now, whether it's that discreet disc quietly vacuuming your floor while you're at the office to the growing global workforce of industrial robots that assemble more and more of our cars, phones and other products without so much as a coffee break.

Depending on how we define robots, this technology also handles the vast majority of securities trading today -- a main artery of the global economy -- as computer algorithms zip trillions of dollars around the world at nanospeed.

On the other hand (robots not being bimanual like, say, many journalists), the alarm should at least be ringing. A McKinsey analysis recently concluded that robotics and related technology could be used to automate some 45 percent of the activities people do at work -- that's as of today.

It remains to be seen if such innovation spawns millions of new jobs, as it typically has in the past, or if it will automate flesh-and-blood workers out of the equation and contribute to what some economists fear is likely to be a prolonged period of "secular stagnation."

In the meantime, while the method used to kill Johnson may have been unprecedented in U.S. policing, robots are already being deployed to patrol America's streets and in many other settings. Here's a look at some of the ways robots are currently being used or tested:

Security. Uber is using a robot -- or an autonomous data machine, as its manufacturer calls it -- to guard one of the ride-hailing company's parking lots in San Francisco. The same robot, which was deployed to guard a mall in Palo Alto, California, left a toddler with minor injuries earlier this month after accidentally running him over, according to ABC7 News.

Prisons. A South Korean prison in 2012 tested three "robo-guards." The five-foot-tall robots, which could also be controlled manually using an iPad, used software to assess how inmates are behaving.

Cattle herding. The "SwagBot," developed by the Australian Centre for Field Robotics and the University of Sydney, is being tested as a way to herd cattle and other animals. Also in the works are robots to pick vegetables, kill weeds and do other tasks down on the farm.

Airline production. Boeing (BA) and Airbus are using robots to do everything from building aircraft wings and assembling engines to riveting and painting plane fuselages.

Hospital aide. The University of California San Francisco medical center in Mission Bay uses the so-called TUG robot to haul linens, move carts and do other work that the hospital says frees staff to focus on patient care. The rolling device, made by Aethon, is equipped with mapping software and sensors so it can navigate the facility. It also uses Wi-Fi to communicate with elevators, fire alarms and automatic doors.

Nursing assistant. Robots in health care settings won't only carry supplies, however. The National Science Foundation is funding the development of a robotic nursing assistant that will visually monitor long-term care patients, check vital signs and even read to them. A related robot could help patients walk, including by pushing a wheelchair or IV pole, and guide them to where they need to go.

Underwater work. FMC Technologies' underwater robots include the Atlas 7R, a remotely controlled arm that is both enormously strong and that can work at depths where people can't (see below). ASV Unmanned Marine Systems makes entirely autonomous surface and submersible boats that can be used for everything from exploring wrecks to underwater construction.

Teacher. Working with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Boston school in 2015 had a fuzzy, colorful robot dubbed Tega interact with preschoolers to see if it could help them learn Spanish. The Android-based robot, which uses software designed to interpret the emotions behind kids' facial expressions, isn't a teacher so much as a "co-learner," according to one account of the project. That means Tega tries to match a child's response by expressing its own feelings of excitement and even boredom.

Lawyer. New York law firm Baker Hostetler is using an AI-powered "lawyer" in its bankruptcy practice. Developed by Ross Intelligence based on IBM's Watson computer, the technology that famously beat several Jeopardy! champs at their own game, the software can sift through more than a billion documents a second to answer a human attorney's questions using natural speech, as well as monitor law changes that can affect a case.

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    Alain Sherter covers business and economic affairs for CBSNews.com.