Science fiction often depicts workplace robots as either sinister like Hal 9000 from “A Space Odyssey” or fawning like Rosie the Jetsons’ robot maid. The reality of collaborative robots, or cobots, is much different. Thanks to new advances in 5G wireless communication, we’re closer than ever to human and robot partnerships that have the potential to make workplaces across the globe safer, more efficient, and incredibly futuristic.
Some think hiring robots means human unemployment. People fear a robot coworker will eventually come for their job. But cobots are more like assistants. Most are relatively small, lightweight, inexpensive, and up for allying with workers of various skill levels.
“There is a spectrum between automation, where machines do all the work, and augmentation, where intelligent machines of all kinds can enhance the human ability to work,” said Dr. Maja Matarić, founder and director of the Interaction Lab at the University of Southern California.
That augmentation may help create hyper-focused superworkers, said Matarić. It also has the potential to include employees who may not have had a spot before, such as injured veterans and people with limited abilities. And since cobots average just $24,000, it's an area primed for enormous growth. One report from Barclays said that the cobot market, which brought in around $120 million by the end of 2015, could hit $3 billion by 2020 and $12 billion by 2025.
Human-robot cooperation may transform the way workplaces look in industries including manufacturing, energy, agriculture, and medicine.
Consider the restaurant industry. Customers want to feel well taken care of, but servers also have to stay on top of repetitive and thankless tasks like wiping down the bar after every drink. In some restaurants, small and speedy robot arms are installed to search the liquor racks and provide bartenders needed ingredients. The cobot saves the workers from having to climb up ladders or down stairs, and gives them more time to tend to patrons and craft cocktails.
Factory floors are another place primed for cobot enhancements. In addition to improving safety by doing the jobs deemed too dangerous for humans, cobots can tackle the tedious jobs that can lead to burnout, high turnover, and employees feeling underutilized. While cobots are busy with those menial tasks, workers can be trained to work to higher-skilled jobs like testing a product’s safety or reliability via virtual reality cobots.
“Imagine an assembly line, and next to you would be a cobot, an integral helping hand,” said Stan Prutz, CEO and President of QDS Systems. “A business that is implementing the use of cobots does not have to replace 100 percent of the employees. Work cells can be designed for a human and a cobot to work collaboratively, offloading portions of the work that a robot is better suited to, typically making workers more productive, engaged, and improving their job satisfaction.”
One MIT study estimated that cobot teams at a BMW factory reduced human idle time by as much as 85 percent, which translates to an immediate rise in productivity. And that, said Matarić, is when the magic happens.
“When humans and robots can work together,” she said, “it really shows how we can hugely enhance not just human ability but also motivation and human purpose, and that’s where I see huge potential.”
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