robots re/make: what it means to work like humans do

in rethinking robotics by Jim Lawton

Last month’s RoboBiz was jam-packed with the latest and greatest products, the best and brightest minds in the field and an incredible amount of energy around the practical applications that smart, collaborative robots are being put to use for today. Kudos to the organizers for a conference that gave us all a lot to digest!

Most compelling for me were the sessions on where we go next. I’ve written and spoken quite a bit about the characteristics that differentiate collaborative robots from traditional automation. None more exciting than the ability to work as humans do and the sessions I attended offered a lot in terms of the innovation in that particular area.

Sawyer, the smart, collaborative robot, works like humans do.

A few of the takeaways are still firmly planted and informing my thinking about the next wave of innovation:

Robert Hill, IBM Watson Technology talked about the role of cognition – a most human way of engaging with the world around us. The vision shared here resonated with me, in large part because the themes reflected what we are hearing from customers. Most especially, that the robots need to conform to the existing environment—not the other way around. This requires that robots become more general purpose, able to convey and grasp underlying meaning and intent and able to learn—not only from humans—but also from each other.

In his keynote, Ray Kurzweil, inventor, author and futurist, addressed the convergence of biology and robotics, emphasizing that robotics is an information technology. Just as humans are differentiated from other mammals by the abilities of our brains, so too, will robots have “brains” that allow them to be programmed for flexibility based on perception and changing input. In our customers’ environments this adaptability is critical, as many operations are no longer mass-producing volumes of a single product.

Ken Goldberg, a professor of IEOR and EECS at UC Berkeley, spoke about the increasing ability of robots to perform autonomously. To me, this is the Holy Grail – or at least one of them – in robotics. We see a lot about the jobs that robots can take on, to reduce the cognitive load on humans and free them to focus on creativity and innovation. The challenge here of course, is how much autonomy is enough. A question faced by anyone with a child becoming a teenager, or with responsibility for a team – letting go isn’t necessarily easy, but doing it is often the only way to move forward.

Like I said, a lot to digest, but more importantly, a lot to inspire.



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.

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