JIM LAWTON
Chief Product and Marketing Officer
Rethink Robotics
Boston, MA
www.rethinkrobotics.com

In 1961, Unimate — the first large-scale industrial robot — transformed the assembly lines at General Motors. Reading the headlines today, it seems we’re on the precipice of a new era where robots will do just about anything that humans can. These machines will drive our cars, report the news, perform surgery, and fold our laundry — and it all comes across as though the innovation just started at the turn of the century.

The reality is that robotics-enabled machines have become much more ubiquitous in our daily lives in the past 40 years than you might think. Robots deliver medication in hospitals; iRobot’s Roomba is the quintessential example of a robot for the home — cleaning floors with just a push of a button; robotic technology makes it possible for cars to park themselves. The list goes on. My point is that robots have been evolving and helping us humans out for quite a while now.

So where are we going? In the case of manufacturing — where robots really got their start — smart, collaborative robots are safe enough to work with human colleagues, they can perform tasks in the same way humans do, and they can perform more than one task without the need for expensive reprogramming. What’s next is really exciting. Advances that will truly transform the production environment — and inform innovation in other sectors — include:

Robots will get smarter. Today, robots apply logic and make simple inferences. Going forward, artificial intelligence and information technologies will come together with advanced manufacturing, allowing robots to cognitively understand and reason. They’ll learn from the past, predict the future, and prescribe actions they can take to drive positive outcomes.

Robots will be able to deal in an imperfect world. Think about what it takes to bake a cake in your kitchen. The variability in that environment would make today’s robot sit down and cry. Watch for robots that can perform in whatever environment they face. To do that, robots will become more general-purpose, and able to work without constant human intervention to “reset” alignment or adjust anything else that might have slipped out of order.

Robots will become more collaborative. To me, this is the Holy Grail — or at least one of them — in robotics. As robots are able to do more kinds of work, humans are able to focus on the creativity and innovation that will truly move us forward. That’s where the real benefit of human-robot collaboration lies.

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the March, 2016 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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