Human And Machine Future Collaboration – A Further Look

Human And Machine Future Collaboration – A Further Look

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.”


Robots, Automation, and Jobs

Robots, Automation, and Jobs

People keep grabbing headlines, and probably clicks, with scare stories projecting the end of life as we know it because the robots (and automation) are coming to take away all the jobs.

I have written on this topic a few times:

This is an important topic–but not for idle speculation.

I believe people were made to work. It is in our nature. I understand that people exist who retired early, play a little golf, sit around, maybe attend a committee meeting a month. Given reasonably good health, sitting around is something I cannot fathom.

And you need money to live. We may be living in the first society where people have been guaranteed an income through pensions (distinct from savings) and can afford not to work.

It is the urge to be useful, the urge to create, and the urge to feed our families and ourselves that keeps most of us going.

Hence the fear that robots and automation will take all the jobs and most people will be left in poverty.

The people who really do need to pay attention to these trends are those creative types at the forefront of technology. They are creating robots that help people. This product development effort recognizes a key demographic trend–that the population of the US and Western Europe (probably also China) is increasingly aged.

We are facing a shortage of workers in the future, not a surplus. People such as Rodney Brooks and his Baxter robot are forging a new frontier in human assistants. Even in the industrial side ABB and Fanuc (among others I’m sure) are unveiling “cooperative” robots who can work side-by-side with humans no cages required to accomplish work.

Recently Moira Gunn of Tech Nation NPR show and podcast interviewed New York Times journalist John Markoff about his book “Machines of Loving Grace.”

So often New York Times journalists get technology and manufacturing wrong. I have not read the book (yet), but Markoff takes a balanced and reasonable approach in his interview. He’s not trying to make money scaring people. He is actually explaining what is really coming.

We’ll have people. We’ll have robots. We’ll have jobs to do and problems to solve. Life will go on.

Manufacturing Workforce of Future Both Robots and People

Manufacturing Workforce of Future Both Robots and People

Human-like Robot

Baxter the Robot

Predictions are difficult, especially about the future. I always thought that was a Yogi Berra statement. But it could have been Niels Bohr, the physicist. Or others. But it’s true.

I’ve offered thoughts here and again here about the future workforce in manufacturing. Are we all going to be replaced?

Economist Andrew McAfee tries to strike a balanced pose by acknowledging that, yes, probably, droids will take our jobs — or at least the kinds of jobs we know now. In this TED talk, he thinks through what future jobs might look like, and how to educate coming generations to hold them.

But even better is this TED Talk from Rodney Brooks of iRobot and now Rethink Robotics which dives deeply into demographics. He says robots, can become our essential collaborators, freeing us up to spend time on less mundane and mechanical challenges. He further points out how valuable this could be as the number of working-age adults drops and the number of retirees swells. He introduces us to Baxter, the robot with eyes that move and arms that react to touch, which could work alongside an aging population — and learn to help them at home, too.

This are the thoughts of a technology futurist and practitioner. Well worth a watch.

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