collaborative robotics, human characteristics and the art of the possible

in rethinking robotics by Jim Lawton

Talking about the ways robots will be more like people can evoke a lot of emotions. For some people, there’s a Jetsons-like joy of picturing a robot walking around your house and chatting while cleaning up after you. For a lot of other people, it will be hard not to immediately picture the Terminator and think about all sorts of post-apocalyptic scenarios.

But when I make comparisons between people and robots, it’s not to suggest that machines are anywhere near the point of resembling, or replacing people. In fact, robots will never replace people. Instead, my premise is that to meet the next generation of customers, we need to accelerate innovation around how robots interact directly with humans—based on robotic solutions that take on certain human characteristics.

Collaborative Robots

The characteristics I identified included human ability to engage, learn, adapt, resile and sense —all attributes that facilitate response and reaction and all critical to interaction. Here’s how I see these characteristics playing out in robotics solutions.

Engage. Humans engage with one another and with machines without even thinking about it. Verbal and non-verbal cues tell those with whom we’re working if we agree or not, understand or not, and much more.

When I reach for a glass of water, I look at it just before my arm reaches it. This is indicating my intent to pick up the glass of water. Any person watching me would be able to understand that I plan to place the glass in my hand. And because it is filled with water, they can reasonably assume I am going to drink it. If they think a little bit, they could conclude that I am most likely thirsty.

Robots need to both read these types of cues, as well as express them. As part of that engagement, we need to consider both the person understanding the robot and the robot understanding the person. When robots are able to bring this same kind of engagement to their “relationships,” letting their colleagues (humans and other machines) know how they are processing what’s happening in the moment, making it much easier to troubleshoot, problem solve and modify to meet evolving conditions.

Learn. Humans learn in many different ways. So will robots. They will learn by doing—on-the-job training if you will. They will through experience. When I was young, I learned to crochet from my grandmother. I didn’t read a set of work instructions; she showed me.

Much has been written about the impact that smarts and intelligence will play in robotics and automation. We are already seeing this. Robots are not only doing more and more physical tasks, but increasingly they are taking on more of the cognitive load of humans as well. More brains, less brawn.

Adapt. Humans move from task to task without skipping a beat and adapt to new conditions seamlessly. A range of technologies will make it possible for robots to do the same. New task require a different set of ‘hands’? Not a problem, plug-and-play grippers can be swapped on the spot and the robot can pick up the new task without requiring programming changes. Scene recognition will allow the robot to recognize where it is – and based on its surroundings – know what’s required.

Like humans in their homes, who go from folding the laundry one minute to emptying the dishwasher the next, robots won’t need to be re-programmed.

Resile. When robots work outside the cage, they have to deal with the real-world. That means operating in an environment that is imperfect and that changes constantly.

Of course, it’s much easier to design solutions when one can assume that everything is fixed and doesn’t change. But go into any contract manufacturer and you’ll often see that only the surface mount machine is fixed. Everything else is on wheels. In an environment like this that can be constantly changing, collaborative robots need to work seamlessly and with little integration time and cost.

But the long-term payoff is a big one. Because when you bolt a piece of machinery down, you take away a level of flexibility. I have walked through plants that look like graveyards of old automation. The automation becomes a barrier to continuous improvement and to one’s ability to respond to a changing marketplace.

Sense. We all recognize what the “click” of a seat belt means. Our senses inform a great deal of our decisions and the way we perform tasks. Robots, too, will apply sensory inputs to perform some tasks in the same way that a human might. With much more nuanced and sophisticated interaction control built on force-sensing and compliance, a robot will be able to “feel” one’s way into a fixture and “sense” when a part is correctly seated for example.

The future is clear. In 10, 15 or 20 years collaborative robots will work in every home and every manufacturer, in offices, gyms, banks and restaurants. They will work as humans do.

And when robots can own the tasks best suited to collaborative automation, humans are able to focus on what requires their skills and intellect. In those environments, we will find that the application of free-will – the most powerful of all human characteristics – will flourish. Then the promise of collaborative robots will become the reality. And we will experience the art of the possible.

(1 comment)

About the Author

Jim Lawton

Jim had a choice upon graduating from Tufts University – chase a dream as a concert pianist or become part of the inaugural Leaders for Manufacturing Program at MIT. He chose the latter– dedicating his career to developing and delivering innovative solutions that improve the business of manufacturing. Internally at HP, and then at breakthrough start-ups in e-commerce, inventory optimization and supply chain risk management, Jim’s never once looked back. His charter today: capture the power of data and analytics to push the standard for world-class manufacturing higher—once again.

1 comment on this article

John Hlinka December 30, 2014 at 12:17 am

What about robot maintenance and repairs? In your opinion, is this profession going to grow rapidly and who will provide training? Any role for community colleges?

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