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#4 Robotics & AI; How do I know you're not a robot?

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#4 How do I know you're not a robot?

What Have the Robots Ever Done for Us?

Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) introduced the word robot to the modern vocabulary – derived from the Czech robota describing forced labour. Even today, that term remains a fairly accurate description of the roles we expect robots to perform as we continue to imbue them with state-of-the-art capabilities.

The play also nurtures our fear that robots may take over enough of our roles to make humans unnecessary.

First – What is a Robot?

Perhaps inspired by Čapek, we often imagine robots as human-like machines. Robots can be replicants or androids – a word that has origins in the Greek for “likeness to man”. On the other hand, industrial robots may bear a passing resemblance to the human form, such as the Baxter by Rethink Robotics (Figure 1), but there are also specialised formats such as SCARA and cartesian robots.

Figure 1. Baxter has a human-like appearance. Image Source.

Many research projects have offered robots that seek to emulate human movement or expression, such as humanoid robots like those from Toyota’s T-HR3 and Honda’s Asimo, while Boston Dynamics’ Spot shows how animal-like forms could be adopted to achieve different kinds of mobility.

Some have sought to define robots by their characteristics, suggesting they should have qualities such as intelligence, sense, dexterity, power, and independence.

The British Robot Association defines an industrial robot as “a re-programmable device designed to both manipulate and transport parts, tools, or specialised manufacturing implements through variable programmed motions for the performance of specific manufacturing tasks." Other groups accept robots that are designed to perform a fixed sequence and are not reprogrammable, and of course tools such as surgical robots are created to be controlled by a human operator from a distance that can be anywhere from a few centimetres to a different country.

Robots at Work

A simple industrial robot can now be bought for well under $10,000. As the technology becomes more affordable robots are increasingly in demand to boost workplace productivity by working faster, for longer, and eliminating human errors. Factories can even save on heating and room lighting because the robots are not dependent on creature comforts.

Large automotive brands have been infusing their vehicle assembly activities with robotic technology for more than 40 years. Fiat’s balletic “Handbuilt by Robots” ad campaign of 1979 captured the imagination of the general public. It’s even said that filming was marred by action from workers protesting against robots taking their jobs.

Further evidence that robots will oust humans from their work includes the recent first delivery by drone of a human organ for transplant, saving the expense of a human-piloted helicopter flight. But wait a moment: transportation logistics often prevent successful transplant surgery, imposing high costs and sometimes incurring delays that can render an organ unusable, or even losses in transit. Eliminating these problems can widen the organ-donor pool and give people greater access to the benefits of transplantation.

Today, robots in factories are not only handling heavy lifting and taking over tasks like precision welding and paint spraying to boost speed and precision beyond human capabilities – the next generation of collaborative robots, or cobots, is working alongside humans in quality-control roles. At Audi’s newly updated factory in Brussels, where the electric e-tron models are assembled, cobots are part of the teams inspecting body welds (Figure 2) and are employed to look in locations human inspectors find difficult or impossible to access, hence improving quality for the customer without threatening human jobs. The company even says that it will become possible to employ human workers with minor disabilities, now that they can be supported in their role by the cobots.

Figure 2. Cobots can help humans accomplish otherwise impossible tasks. Image Source.

As this new class of machines brings robots out from their traditionally guarded-off areas, fewer barriers and greater co-operation could help humans understand what robots have to offer and – perhaps more importantly – get a feel for their limitations that may dispel some fears and suspicions.

Sales of cobots are growing and could top $7.6 billion by 2027, representing almost 40% of the total robot market. They are especially attractive to the SME sector for a number of reasons. Freestanding and even desktop cobots are available, which require little space and can be integrated into work areas with minimal disruption. They are relatively easily re-assigned to new tasks, making them cost-effective for low-volume/high-mix work, and the popular single-arm format with six rotating joints (Figure 3) means vendors can offer generic, off-the-shelf solutions to automate a huge variety of tasks cost-effectively with only minimal customisation.

Figure 3. Cobots have converged to a versatile single-arm format. Copyright Universal Robots A/S

As robots become more deeply ingrained and widely used in industry, it follows that programming should become faster and easier; better at incorporating the specialist knowledges intrinsic to the tasks at hand and less dependent on robot experts. SMEs that typically have one or only a small number of robots need programming methods that minimise downtime.

A robot may have its own teaching pendant, often now a tablet-like device that offers menus and graphics to help the programmer describe the movements, positions, and sequences required. With careful design, these can be easy to use, although the robot must be taken out of service to be programmed. Offline programming using simulation software is an alternative that can save downtime, although a good quality simulator is needed to ensure accuracy and ease of use. Robots can also be taught by demonstration, physically moving the robot to the required positions in sequence and recording the coordinates to be replayed when the robot is put to work. Although perhaps easy to understand, teaching by demonstration involves downtime and moving the robot to precise coordinates can be difficult.

What about AI (Artificial Intelligence)? Although our lyrical minds can conjure images of robots as walking, talking sentient beings capable of independent thought and decision-making, the reality is that robots have largely developed without AI and can continue to do many of the tasks we need in industry and the home.

While robots can incorporate aspects of AI to increase capabilities such as vision or mobility, AI can be deployed anywhere on the Internet and typically in the Cloud for powerful analytics and pattern-spotting tasks. Nevertheless, robot learning is an emerging discipline that brings machine learning and statistical techniques into the robot world.

Robots Aiding Research

Humans are also harnessing robots effectively to support our own research goals, particularly going into places that are potentially dangerous or unknown to humans. Our missions in space and to other planets – Mars, in particular, as our nearest neighbour – are high-profile examples.

Figure 4. Mars Rover 2020 will be yet another mission to the red planet carried out by robots. Image Source.

Already we have deployed several robots to find out more about Mars, and the next Mars 2020 Rover will carry instruments and tools to study the environment in greater detail than ever before. In addition to advanced cameras, spectrometers looking for organic compounds, and environmental-dynamics analysers, MOXIE – the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment – aims to produce oxygen from the carbon-dioxide atmosphere. With this, it’s clearer than ever that we are using robots as the forerunners of human exploration.

Robots Go Home

While consumer uptake of robots for the home may lag behind industrial-robot markets, care for the sick and elderly is one aspect that can be handled by robots to benefit people in need. As populations age and residential care costs rise, there could be too many elderly people for the numbers of caregivers available. Autonomous, mobile elderly-care robots can take on tasks that older people struggle with, such as picking up dropped objects or remembering to take medication. They can also provide services such as suggesting activities, assisting social interaction, and monitoring the home environment and patients’ vital signs to anticipate and report any problems.

In the workplace and in our homes, we may find robots to be more friend than foe.

For a more light-hearted take on AI and Robotics, head to Apple Podcasts or Spotify and download The DesignSpark Podcast.


The DesignSpark Podcast brings together Dr Lucy Rogers, Bec Hill and Harriet Braine to explore some of the hottest topics in tech through a mix of fun facts, exuberant stand-up, outlandish sketches and foot-tapping songs. You can listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, YouTube and many of your other favourite podcast platforms.

10 Jun 2019, 7:58