The future of work—humans and machines working together in a truly collaborative fashion. A “partnership” said Dell Technologies.

My blogs on the future have not necessarily brought in tons of new page views (but this blog compares pretty well with industry trade publications), but they have drawn the attention of PR agency account managers looking for a way to prove their worth. Sometimes one of the inquiries strikes gold, as they say.

Yesterday James Lawton, Chief Product and Marketing Officer, Rethink Robotics, gave me 30 minutes of his time to talk about a vision of the future for humans and robotics. Rethink Robotics was founded by Rodney Brooks, an MIT professor and co-founder of iRobot (Roomba). I have written about the company several times including here, here, and here. You may remember Sawyer and Baxter, its two robots.


Human-like Robot

Baxter the Robot


We began talking a little about why robotics conversations got stale for several years. “Perhaps people had written robots off because of the way they were used” he told me. Those were mainly pick-and-place and welding. “If we can break the traditional barriers with automation technologies, then we can begin to see many new applications.”

Rethink Robotics has bee focusing on a handful of form factors—safe by design.

I asked about one of the hot topics among traditional robotic suppliers—collaboration. “Collaboration has been internalized it as ‘run without a cage’ instead of ‘people and robots working closely together’. We need to break that mental model. Some writers are worried about robots replacing people, but it’s about machines making people ‘super people.’ Both physical and cognitive assist to humans,” Lawton mentioned.

Lawton offered this challenge to the industry, “Make it so that ‘robot’ isn’t a custom construction project, but make more like hiring a temp worker. To do this, we need a common language interface, something like Amazon Echo, ‘Alexa do this.’ We have linguistics to overcome to accomplish this. We say pick up box and have an idea of box; a robot needs to be taught about what box means in all of the word’s many varieties.”

What about the near future? “In 5-10 years we’ll see these technologies begin to build out. We’ll also start to see more robotic technology in homes,” he predicted.

As far as collaborating, Peter Senge wrote in his book 5th Discipline that it is hard for humans to learn from patterns when they are separated by time and space. Lawton explained, “Computers, on the other hand, can do that. I can’t pull in all the data and derive insights. Say I’m applying torque to a part I’m assembling. But a computer can archive all the past data and then compare that with customer feedback on the assembly. With robot assist on the production process, it can reconfigure its own work on the fly and we can assemble the part in a way that better satisfies the customer.”

“This change in how we interact with machines will change how we live and how we work, as well as how we create value.”


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