In the evolution towards robots becoming part of our everyday lives, there remains the fear that they will eventually replace human jobs. But consider the process that has made technologies such as smartphones into an everyday reality.
The very first step was to overwrite our understanding of machines as tools having just a single purpose. As technologies became increasingly elaborate, manufacturers avoided alienating consumers by keeping the user interface simple and friendly. Bringing smarter technologies to the average person meant changing the idea of machines as tools with a single, very specific purpose. This change happened subtly; the technology became increasingly elaborate over time, but did not alienate the end user by becoming complex and unfriendly.
The same way automobile companies introduced self-driving cars by adding minor features over time (automatic transmission, cruise control, break assistance, parking assistance, etc.), phone companies slowly introduced more complex technologies to their products (texting, cameras, music, wireless internet, etc.) all the way to AI programs that now assist us in daily tasks. Now, robots are everywhere, as humans are adopting technologies to automate and accelerate our capabilities, not to replace us.
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1. Personal Assistant Robots
The ubiquity of smartphones in our daily routines made the introduction between people and AI natural. People grew accustomed to having an electronic butler of sorts at the tip of their fingers. First, there were Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, whom you could converse with to get basic information such as weather forecasts. The apparent success of these two pioneers with the public brought more important players, in the form of Google and Amazon, who launched the Google Assistant (aka OK Google) and Amazon Alexa to take their place in our homes, rather than our pockets.
All four of these assistants have been updated with increasingly complex capabilities over the years, now allowing them to even interact with the physical world. You can now use Alexa to control almost any device in your smart home, be it lights, heaters or even locks, or get the Google Assistant to make a hairdresser appointment for you.
2. Remote Robots
Unlike personal assistant robots that are highly intelligent with minimal interaction with the physical world, the sole purpose of remote robots is to interact with their environment with almost non-existent intelligence.
In the security and defense industry, remote robots are used to save lives, with the development of robots that can venture into dangerous and uncontrolled environments and manipulate hazardous materials. At the heart of these operations is the fact that these robots are quite frankly, expendable. But without an extremely knowledgeable human operating them, the robots could not perform emergency procedures in dangerous environments like disarming bombs, visiting enemy air space or handling toxic chemicals.
Cobots are colleagues, not tools. They’re about collaborative, shared control and ultimately cobots rely on the skills of an operator to perform tasks. The main idea behind shared control is that while robots lack decision-making skills, they are much better at certain things that humans aren’t as good at, like precision or repeatability.
Shared control in robotics is a spectrum ranging from full autonomy to complete user control, with every ratio of decision making and motion control that lies in between. Often, even for simple tasks it can be more convenient to only allow the user to indicate his intentions and let the robot act on its own. This is the case when the input controller is not perfectly adapted to the task at hand, either because robots have too many degrees of freedom to be mapped to a controller intuitively or because the user has physical limitations, such as in the case of assistive robotics.
4. Robots in Patient Care
With the general population aging in developed countries, the demand for an increased workforce in the healthcare system is becoming more difficult to meet. Patients have difficulty obtaining appointments with doctors, nurses are almost always overworked, and specialists are struggling with getting access to resources.The field of healthcare is no stranger to state-of-the-art technology, with impressive machines used for treatment and diagnostics. However, the integration of robotics in healthcare applications has been slow, despite many research studies showing the benefits of using robots for patient care.In order to alleviate the burden on these caretakers and restore autonomy to the physically impaired, robotic solutions were designed and were shown not only to allow certain tasks that were previously impossible to be accomplished, but to increase the quality of life and overall well-being of users. These robots literally change the lives of their users, as well as the people around them by empowering the user with independence where often there was none.
With humans and robots collaborating more and more often, the key to future development is to stay close to the new end-users of the technology and listen to their needs. By making robots more accessible and open for multi-purposes, users will find new and creative ways to use them. As people grow accustomed to robots in the workplace, they will look for their benefits to accomplish more tasks at home. As time goes by, users will become the driving force behind robotization and Industry 4.0.