Cobots for Everyone!

Augment, Not Replace: Tomorrow’s Robots Will Work Alongside Humans

For the most part, whenever robots are a topic of discussion, people immediately think of vast industrial warehouses, empty of humans but filled with robots churning out products. But robots displacing humans is not the story that the future of robotics is telling.

In fact, it may be the opposite. On a national scale, Sweden has three times as many robots as the UK (measured as a proportion of factory workers), yet it has a much lower level of socioeconomic inequality.

Even the automotive industry — which for decades has incorporated huge numbers of robots into production lines — is moving toward robots working side-by-side with humans. These collaborative robots, often called “cobots”, are set to transform human work. And not by kicking us off the assembly floor.

Sounds Good, But…

It’s not a stretch to see that having smart, responsive humans work together with strong, untiring robots is a win-win. The humans get to reduce the physical wear-and-tear that comes with many jobs, and their employers get increased output with fewer health issues on the part of their workforce. So why hasn’t this been how we’ve worked with robots all along?

Simply put, we haven’t worked arm-in-appendage this way because humans are relatively weak and delicate, while most industrial robots are seriously powerful and dangerously unaware of their surroundings. If you’ve ever seen a large industrial robot move, you’ll quickly feel some reluctance to get in their way.

In fact, until very recently, almost all industrial robots had to be completely separated from direct human interaction. This was because robots have historically been really bad at adapting to changes in their environment, like, say, when a human steps where they shouldn’t. If that human happens to be in the way during a programmed move by a robot, very bad things could happen.

But that seems ridiculous to us. Surely we can program some sort of AI into robots that gives them the ability to interpret what’s around them and have them stop when a person is sensed? Sadly, even for the most advanced car companies, this is not an easy thing.

So why do we think there is any hope at all for cobots?

Because, unlike the human-avoidance programming used in autonomous vehicles — which has an entire literal planet of problems to avoid — co-working robots are a slightly easier challenge.

They’re Already Here

We can see the beginning of a new collaborative future start to take shape. In one plastics factory in Tennessee, a robot named Sawyer operates right alongside the plant’s existing workforce, not fenced off behind chainlink.

And Sawyer’s safety does not just come from its size. Again, if you’ve been around industrial robots, you know that even the smaller ones can be bone-crushingly strong. In this case, Rethink Robotics has designed their robots to “precisely set the amount of force required, and respond to specific force, so they can make adaptive decisions while running a task.” Bingo.

What Sawyer also demonstrates is the ability for a robot to be taught via collaboration. Allowing humans to teach a robot not by writing code but instead by hands-on training is powerful stuff. It’s not just efficient, it’s exciting and “stupid simple” for workers to do. This is our cobot future.

Collaborative robot Sawyer can be trained by demonstration.
Jeff Green/Rethink Robotics — Rethink Robotics

Well-designed cobots should ideally be free to go outside, as well. Global electronics manufacturer Sharp recently released an intelligent robotic security vehicle called the INTELLOS A-UGV. It’s clear that this automated, unmanned ground vehicle is not meant to replace a human security guard. It’s meant to augment the capabilities of a human security team, by allowing a small security team to cover a large area, without the costs and challenges of hiring a large force.

It gets even better. For instance, ATONATON’s Mimus is bridging the gap between robotic task-mastering and genuine interaction. Incredibly, “she” has no pre-planned movements and operates spontaneously, based on her evaluation of her sensor input. She is currently safely ensconced behind plexi-glass, however.

Looking a little farther forward, the Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research lab is working on solutions for putting humans and robots side-by-side not just on fixed assembly lines, but in “dynamic uncertain environments”. Interestingly, the BAIR project proposes a “robot safe interaction system (RSIS)” that is based on human intelligence. The researchers have observed that when humans want to avoid having a small surprise event turn into a big accident, we combine both short-term reactive responses with longer-term planning to keep things from getting ugly. This is something they believe robots, too, can learn and use.

Our Robot Co-Workers Are Just Getting Started

As speed picks up in the collaborative robotics industry, new trends are appearing. Since 2016, ISO standards on the implementation and governance of collaborative industrial robotics systems has been shaping the course of things to come.

What’s next? True interaction. Whether in a factory or someone’s home, tomorrow’s collaborative robots will have to do better still at interacting with humans. Solutions like Mimus are a stepping stone towards creating robots that don’t feel like robots. But what our general-purpose human helpers really need is a better human-machine interface.

Until now, we humans have primarily communicated with our technology via text. With the advent of Siri and Alexa, AI-based voice recognition has begun. Further advances in voice-controlled human-machine interfaces are on the way, and they will absolutely transform the robotics industry, while giving it a much friendlier face.

Powerful, deep-pocketed organizations have even loftier goals. DARPA has awarded $65 million in grant money to researchers towards creating a human-machine interface that connects directly to the brain. This kind of functionality may be decades away, but the potential benefits are myriad.

So, here we are. We’re on the verge of collaborative robots transforming every aspect of human work. And maybe it will be a good thing: with more C-3PO-type bots than Terminators, by the looks of it. Best of all, we’re nearly to the point where humans and robots can divide tasks based on our comparative strengths. And once that’s true, our uniquely human traits — emotional intelligence, creativity, and strategic thinking — will finally become the most valuable elements of the industrial line.