Learning to Love Our Robot Co-Workers


The robots were Joe McGillivray’s idea. The first one arrived at Dynamic Group in Ramsey, Minn., by pickup truck in two cardboard boxes. With a mixture of excitement and trepidation, McGillivray watched as a vendor unpacked two silver tubes, assorted blue-and-gray joints and a touch screen and put them all together. When he was finished 10 minutes later, McGillivray beheld an arm that, had its segments not all been able to swivel 360 degrees, might have belonged to a very large N.B.A. player or a fairly small giant. Its “shoulder” was mounted to a waist-high pedestal on wheels. If it were to hail someone across the room, its “elbow” would reach eye level. Below its “wrist,” which was triple-jointed for extra dexterity, there were sockets for various attachments. McGillivray, not sure yet if he wanted to keep the contraption, stuck a piece of clear tape to the wrist and drew a happy face on it, which made the arm look a bit as if it were putting on a puppet show. He hoped that this would help it look nonthreatening.

McGillivray is the 38-year-old chief executive of Dynamic, a maker of molds for the mass production of small plastic and metal parts, from 3M Scotch-tape dispensers to bullets. The company was founded 40 years ago by his father, Peter, and Peter’s friend Dave Kalina, both tool and die makers, in Kalina’s basement. Machining like theirs is labor-intensive. Even as the business expanded to more than 100 employees in two warehouses in Ramsey — a manufacturing town founded by French traders and settled in the 1850s on the banks of the Mississippi River — many of its customers switched to competitors overseas, induced by improvements in the technologies of developing nations coupled with falling trade barriers. But McGillivray and Kalina found a lucrative niche making molds for the most intricate medical products. Orthodontic braces, for example, use brackets that have unique shapes based on the angles of the teeth to which they will be affixed; the bracket molds, which are injected with powdered steel, must be cut to a degree of precision 40 times thinner than a hair. Thanks largely to the skill of Dynamic’s machinists, the company did more than survive; it prospered. Then came the Great Recession. For the first time, McGillivray and Kalina, once able to offer bonuses, struggled to make payroll. To keep going, they needed to produce more molds or cut costs, or both.

Last month, on a damp, gray day, Joe McGillivray took me on a tour of one of Dynamic’s facilities, a former steel factory adjacent to a railroad track. The walls were painted cream with green trim, and the thick hum of motors made the cavernous space feel almost cozy. He led me to an injection press the size of a bakery oven. Inside, a nozzle moved up and down, shooting molten plastic into a mold, where it cooled around the end of a catheter tube. The resulting piece, when the tube was placed in a patient, would be used as a connector by a surgeon threading tools like scopes or stents into his or her body. A young man in a hairnet, gloves and goggles sat at a table facing the press. The robot was beside him.

Before the robot arrived, McGillivray told me, four people worked the press. One inserted the catheter tubes into a frame that held them still; one set the frame on a mold, ran it through the press and took it out; one removed the finished tubes from the frame and trimmed away excess plastic; and one inspected the final products. The process was unforgiving: If an operator hit the stop button an instant too late, the plastic burned, ruining the part. Inevitably, even the nimblest foursomes produced lots of scrap.

Before the robot arrived, McGillivray told me, four people worked the press. One inserted the catheter tubes into a frame that held them still; one set the frame on a mold, ran it through the press and took it out; one removed the finished tubes from the frame and trimmed away excess plastic; and one inspected the final products. The process was unforgiving: If an operator hit the stop button an instant too late, the plastic burned, ruining the part. Inevitably, even the nimblest foursomes produced lots of scrap.

(McGillivray, a father of three young daughters whose standards of personal responsibility are marked even by Minnesotan standards, tested this feature on himself first: “Let’s just say it hit a fleshy part of my body, and I didn’t like it. But it didn’t leave a bruise.”) This meant that he didn’t have to build an expensive, semi-permanent safety cage around it. And because the robot is easy to move and reprogram, it can quickly be reassigned to whatever unique processes are required to fill the one-off orders Dynamic typically receives.

The robot’s price tag was $35,000, and within two months, it paid for itself by quadrupling the efficiency of the press and eliminating scrap. There was one caveat, though: “Productivity did decrease when we first put the robots in,” McGillivray said, “because they’re so dang fun to watch.” He has since purchased two more of them from Universal Robots, a Danish company, and hired a technician to maintain them. No one was laid off, and the company’s finances are sounder than they have been in nearly 20 years. “I guess I’m kind of an evangelist,” he told me.

“It’s just a machine?” my husband said, when he saw a picture of the arm I had flown a thousand miles to see. “I thought you said it was a robot.” In fact, it was both — a robot is technically just a machine run by a computer — but I knew what he meant because I had gone there with the same expectation. I presumed that the robot would look and act like a human and, consequently, that it would make me and the people who worked with it a little uncomfortable.

The more I talked with engineers and civilians alike, the more I came to believe that this feeling was hardly unusual and that it went beyond the perfectly rational fear that a robot might take your job. “My deep worry is that every time you see a robot doing what a human does, there’s this visceral response — it’s human nature,” Julie Shah, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at M.I.T. and the leader of its Interactive Robotics Group, told me. This response is so intense, and so crucial to people’s acceptance or rejection of robots, that Masahiro Mori, a Japanese robotics professor, famously graphed it in 1970. He found that our affinity for robots increases as they come to look more and more human — until the point when the likeness is similar enough to momentarily fool the eye. Once the illusion is discovered, the viewer is unsettled and affinity plunges, a dip Mori dubbed “the uncanny valley.” The danger is that our uneasiness will prevent us from preparing for a future in which robots interact with humans in increasingly sophisticated ways, and one that — thanks to rapid advances in computing and mechanical engineering — is coming, and coming soon.

Read more at https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/02/23/magazine/learning-to-love-our-robot-co-workers.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0&referer=

By KIM TINGLEY

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