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Cobots: People and robots working together

UR5_VW_GlowPlug_Gasparini

Universal’s UR5 collaborates directly with employees in engine production plant Salzgitter/Germany to ensure ergonomic working processes.

When people talk about the displacement of jobs brought about by the development of robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation, they have a tendency to leave out the capabilities and flexibility of people and to attribute a certain amount of agency to the technology itself. The technology becomes the focal point. The deeper problem is the idea that we just need more technology (robots, automation or petaflops) — as if technology is something you pour on grass like water to help growth — whereas in our businesses it is not technology alone that is the answer to increased productivity and efficiency, it is technology combined with people and knowhow that makes the big difference.

FRIDA from ABB

Photo: ABB’s FRIDA (Friendly Robot for Industrial Dual-arm Assembly).

As sophisticated as these machines are, they are, at most, semi-autonomous. I don’t believe I will see a robot or computer have an original thought, the Holy Grail of Artificial General Intelligence, in my lifetime. Robots and computerized machines are tools, albeit remarkably sophisticated tools, used by humans.

Many organizations are beginning to see the advantages of cobots. Large corporations like Apple and General Electric and smaller companies such as C & S Wholesale Grocer are beginning or increasing manufacturing within the US through a combination of people and robots. Flextronics, a manufacturer of consumer electronics utilizing robots and automation, is famed for displaying a banner outside its factory in Milpitas, south of San Francisco proudly proclaiming: “Bringing Jobs & Manufacturing Back to California.”

Europe is seeing similar trends in banking, financial services and in the industrial and other service sectors. The European Union is investing heavily to help businesses build and adopt robots and forecasts robotics and related services will contribute an extra $80 billion in GDP per year by 2020.

Whilst sales of robots is growing, figures released by the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), the industry’s trade group, indicate a growing demand for industrial robots in the US with a total of 5,938 robots valued at $338 million ordered by companies in North America in the first quarter of 2014, coming in just shy of the all-time record set at the end of 2012. This increase in robot sales is having a positive impact on jobs, either creating them or sustaining existing jobs and helping to increase productivity and profitability. Jim Stogdill at O’Reilly Media emphasizes where I believe co-working is going:

“As automation takes the next layer of jobs at the current bottom, we humans are asked to do more and more complex stuff, higher up the value hierarchy.”

The potential uses for robotics, AI, and automation in business are great and ever expanding and helping to move jobs locally. But we must remember technology is here to serve us, not the other way around. It is the tech savvy company that successfully unites robots, automation and humans that will thrive in the ‘second machine age.’

 

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