On a breezy, sunny day in January of last year, I saw one on a short-grass prairie near Colorado's border with Kansas, along with a 31-year-old San Franciscan called Noah Ready-Campbell. Unevenly arranged wind turbines could be seen to the south, resembling a quiet army of dazzling three-armed giants. A hole that would serve as the base for another one was in front of me.

That hole, which was 62 feet in diameter, had walls that sloped up at a 34-degree angle, a bottom that was 10 feet deep, and was nearly perfectly level. It was being dug by a Caterpillar 336 excavator. The cat stacked the soil that had been dug up in a place where it wouldn't get in the way and would create additional piles as needed.

However, this excavator's seat was vacant. On the cab's roof, the operator was lying. It lacked hands and connected to the excavator's control system through three snaky black cords. It didn't have any eyes or ears either since it monitored its job using gyroscope-like sensors, GPS, video cameras, lasers, and other technologies. Co-founder of the San Francisco startup Built Robotics, Ready-Campbell opened the lid of a posh baggage case on the roof after stomping on the rough mud and climbing up the excavator. Inside was the offering from his business: a 200-pound machine that now does tasks that formerly required a person.

"This is where the AI runs," he said, pointing into the assembly of circuit boards, wires, and metal boxes that comprised the machine. Sensors to let it know where it is, cameras to let it see, controllers to send commands to the excavator, communication devices to let people watch it, and the processor where its artificial intelligence, or AI, makes decisions a human driver would The computers that typically react to the joysticks and pedals in the cab receive these control signals.

While the cat did have the words "CAUTION Robotic Equipment Moves Without Warning" stamped on its side, Ready-Campbell's gadget isn't like that. Of course, it also differs from C-3PO. Instead, it's a brand-new kind of robot that is not human but is nevertheless intelligent, skilled, and mobile. These technologies, which were once uncommon but are now becoming more common, are made to "live" and interact with individuals who have never encountered a robot.

Walmart will already use robots to conduct inventory and clean the floors in 2020. In warehouses, people retrieve items for mailing and shelve them. They pick apples, trim vegetables, and even pluck raspberries. They support stroke sufferers' limb recovery and the socialization of autistic youngsters. Borders are patrolled, and in the instance of Israel's Harop drone, targets are attacked.

Moreover, that occurred before the COVID-19 epidemic. Suddenly, the concept of replacing people with robots—which, according to polls, is opposed by the majority of people worldwide—seems sensible, if not necessary, from a medical standpoint. (Learn more about the pandemic's rising need for robotics.)

Robots now carry supplies at a Dallas hospital, clean patients' rooms in China and Europe, and transport meals to Milton Keynes, England, and Singapore parks while bugging passersby to keep a safe distance.

The robotmakers I had contacted in 2019, when I started working on this story, indicated they were getting more, not less, queries from potential clients this past spring, in the midst of a worldwide economic meltdown.

"Automation is going to be a part of work," Ready-Campbell told me in May, adding that the epidemic has increased awareness of this fact. Efficiency and productivity had previously been the driving forces behind it, but now there's another factor at play: health and safety.

Before the COVID crisis gave it more fuel, technical advancements were hastening the development of robots that might permeate every aspect of human life. Mechanical components grew stronger, lighter, and less expensive. More processing power was contained in smaller packaging because of electronics. Engineers may now include robust data-crunching technologies into robot bodies, thanks to advancements. Better digital connections allow them to link a basic robot to hundreds of others, allowing them to share a collective intellect similar to that of a beehive or maintain some robot "brains" on a computer somewhere else.

In the near future, the workplace "will be an ecosystem of humans and robots working together to maximize efficiency," predicted Ahti Heinla, co-founder of the Skype internet call platform and current co-founder and chief technology officer of Starship Technologies, whose six-wheeled, self-driving delivery robots are cruising around Milton Keynes and other cities in Europe and the United States.

"We've gotten used to having machine intelligence that we can carry around with us," said Manuela Veloso, an expert in robotic AI at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University. She extended her phone. We will now need to adjust to an intellect that has a body and moves independently of us.

Collaborative robots known as "cobots" wander the hallways outside of her office, directing guests and delivering documents. On mobile display stands, they resemble iPads. However, they move around independently and even use elevators when necessary (beeping and flashing a courteous request to adjacent people to push the buttons for them).

Machines and other artificial beings will unavoidably become a part of daily life, according to Veloso.

The 34-year-old chopped lettuce at Taylor Farms in Salinas, California, for seven years with a seven-inch knife. He would cut off the head of romaine or iceberg lettuce, shear off any damaged leaves, and pitch it into a trash can while bending over repeatedly.

However, since 2016, a robot has carried out the slicing. It's a 28-foot-long harvester that resembles a tractor that drives smoothly through the rows while cutting off a lettuce head whenever its sensor finds one with a high-pressure water jet. A group of roughly 20 people sort the chopped lettuce into bins after it falls down a slanted conveyor belt that transports it up to the harvester's platform.

In June 2019, as Pérez took a break from tending to a 22-acre field of romaine intended for Taylor's fast-food and grocery store clients, we first spoke. Another group of lettuce cutters was stooped over the plants a few hundred yards away, their blades flashing as they labored in the manner that existed before robots.

Pérez added, "This is better because using a knife to cut lettuce wears you out much more than using this machine." He turns the bins on the conveyor belt while riding atop the robot. According to him, not all employees favor the new arrangement. "Some individuals prefer to stick with what they are familiar with. Others become weary of standing on the machine since they are accustomed to moving constantly through a field.