The future of work is not about humans being replaced by robots. Rather, it’s about us learning to work alongside smart, automated technology that will increase our capabilities while allowing us to focus on skills that are uniquely human.
We have shared our workplaces with robots for some time now – the earliest industrial robots were used in the mid-20th century.th century, usually to perform routine, manual assembly work on production lines. What makes today’s industrial robots different is that they are able to perform work in a way that is truly autonomous, without needing direct control or input from us to tell them how to do it. This is because they are controlled by artificial intelligence (AI) – specifically software algorithms that use machine learning to enable them to continuously get better and better at their jobs.
If, as is true for many of us, your concept of what a robot is comes from science fiction, then many of today’s industrial robots may not look quite what you expect them to. This is because they are usually built to perform a specific task, so they will often look quite similar to the normal, non-AI machine typically used for that job. The term “robot” is also sometimes used to refer to autonomous systems that are completely embedded software, as in Robotic Process Automation (RPA).
No matter how you look at it, it’s clear that robots of one form or another will play an ever-increasing role in our working lives. So here’s a look at some of the most interesting and exciting collaborations between humans and autonomous machines:
A well-known example of collaboration between humans and robots is Amazon’s warehouse robots that work together with employees in the fulfillment centers. These robots have one job – to bring goods to human pickers so they can be packed and labeled for dispatch. They do this by moving entire shelves and are programmed to watch out for people so they don’t collide and cause accidents. While the existing robots are limited to working in certain designated areas, a newer model currently being trialled, nicknamed “Bert”, will be able to navigate safely anywhere on the factory floor. Amazon says that since introducing robots to its warehouses in 2012, it has also created over a million human jobs.
Robots are often used to work on farms to perform jobs that are dangerous or just plain boring. Autonomous drones can be used to plant seeds, spread fertilizers and pesticides, and watch out for invasive species or intruders. Humans will monitor their work and step in when manual decisions need to be made. The American start-up company Burro creates collaborative robots (or “cobots”) in the “people scale” that use computer vision and GPS to follow agricultural workers and help them with their daily work. The agricultural robotics market is predicted to be worth $11.58 billion by 2025.
Moxie is a cobot created by Diligent Robots designed to help nurses and other staff on their rounds in hospitals. It can make deliveries and perform a range of non-clinical tasks proactively, such as replenishing supplies and collecting samples. It can do this without having to be told exactly what to do, by integrating with electronic health records. The idea is that robots like Moxie will free up human workers to do the parts of their jobs that can best be done by humans, such as providing care and compassion to the sick.
Well-being and therapy robots
Robots are increasingly being used to help patients recovering from injury or surgery. The collaborative robots created by Italian startup Heaxel train those in recovery to perform repetitive movements, monitor their progress toward recovery, and send data back to human therapists who are able to use it to fine-tune their recovery program. Other robots have been created that are designed to live with the elderly or disabled. In addition to providing a form of companionship, they help caregivers by monitoring their well-being and watching out for accidents and falls in the home.
A robot called RoMan has been used by the US Army to clear paths of obstacles that could provide cover for enemies, or other hazards such as improvised explosive devices. It uses 3D sensor data to determine whether objects will pose an obstacle or a hazard, a pair of mantis-like arms originally designed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and powered by deep learning algorithms.
Production of robots
So, robots have now come full circle and ended up back where they started, in production. But today’s collaborative manufacturing robots are significantly more advanced than they were when General Motors installed its first robots at its New Jersey plant in 1962. Symbio Robotics makes robots that are used by automakers, including Ford and Toyota, not just for welding and spray painting but for assembly of components, picking parts, testing systems, checking for errors or defects, and screwing and bolting. These processes make up the part of the production cycle known as “final assembly”, which is traditionally the most complex and difficult to automate. This is because they require a greater degree of precise control and manual dexterity, which has not been available in robotics. systems until recently.
Fast food chains have been quick to adopt automation in their efforts to increase service speed and reduce operating costs. Miso Robotics has created a kitchen cobot that has been tested by companies including Caliburger and Walmart, as well as at Dodger Stadium. The robot, known as Flippy, assists human chefs by flipping burgers and frying chicken, and unlike human chefs, it is capable of working for 100,000 hours without a break.
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