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Saturday, December 08, 2012 6:13 PM

Mine-Sniffing Dolphins Lose Their Jobs to Robots; Sea Lion Jobs Safe for Now

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It takes seven years to train dolphins to sniff for mines and explosives, and it also takes a skilled human trainer to teach the dolphins. It's not hard to figure out where this story is headed.

Please consider Navy dolphins, sea lions losing out to robots.

Like the factory worker and travel agent before them, some Navy dolphins trained to hunt down mines are scheduled to be replaced by computers in five years.

However, the Navy’s marine mammals aren’t going away. Military-trained dolphins and sea lions will continue to be used for port security and retrieving objects from the sea floor — jobs they are still better at than machines.

The Navy’s $28 million marine mammal program, headquartered in San Diego, uses 80 bottle-nosed dolphins and 40 California sea lions.

Armed by Mother Nature with superb eyesight, sophisticated sonar and the ability to dive 500 feet without the bends, these creatures have been deployed to Iraq and Bahrain during the post-Sept. 11 wars to keep ports safe for American ships.

They patrol for enemy divers. They ping mines and mark the location for handlers. It’s a program that goes back to naval research started in the late 1950s that once included killer whales and sharks.

But now Navy officials say that an unmanned underwater vehicle — a 12-foot torpedo-shaped robot — can do the some of the same mine-hunting jobs. And the machines can be manufactured quickly, unlike the seven years it takes to train a dolphin for duty.

Dolphins will be reassigned to other tasks, a Navy official said. Sea lion jobs are safe.

“We are certain that there’s going to be fewer mine-hunting dolphins,” said Mike Rothe, head of the biosciences division at the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific in San Diego.

“About a quarter of (the Navy dolphins) would be affected. But it’s not like they are going to go jobless. We have other assignments,” he said.
Sea Lion Jobs Safe for Now

Sea lions are better than robots at attaching claw-like devices to swimmer's legs (think of a "boot" attached to a car with too many parking tickets). Navy security forces then reel in the invader.

Sea lions are also better than robots at attaching devices to inert missiles on the ocean floor.

Robots to Rule World?

For more on robots and jobs please consider Robots to Rule the World? Taking All Jobs? Replace Women?

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Mike "Mish" Shedlock

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