Arup Thoughts: Having a robotic co-worker in the future

Robots of the future will be able to interact safely and cooperate with human co-workers, as well as learn from them. This will have far-reaching implications for skilled and unskilled jobs as robots become more sophisticated.

05/12/2016


Robots of the future will be able to interact safely and cooperate with human co-workers, as well as learn from them, which will have major implications for skilled and unskilled jobs as robots become more sophisticated. Courtesy: ArupWe appear to be at the tipping point of technology that will enable collaborative robots to be used much more widely in the workplace. Robots of the future will be able to interact safely and cooperate with human co-workers, as well as learn from them. The implications will be far-reaching, and we may have to adapt our lives to work alongside increasingly sophisticated robots.

Robots will replace or augment not only unskilled, routine jobs, but also many highly paid and highly skilled jobs. These could include doctors, journalists and financial traders (automated algorithms are already responsible for high volumes of financial transactions).

Factories have long used industrial robots for tasks that involve heavy lifting or repetitive jobs that require speed and precision. However, these robots have been too unintelligent and dangerous to work alongside humans, who tend to perform more delicate final assembly jobs or tasks that require flexibility.

This is changing. For example, Rethink Robotics' Sawyer robot can be taught to perform tasks by human co-workers with no programming expertise. A human can physically guide Sawyer's arm through part of an activity and Sawyer can infer the rest of the task.

Another interesting development involves robots learning to perform complex tasks through trial and error instead of being reprogrammed. The robot learns from experience and adapts its behavior to improve upon a task. For example, a robot from the Berkeley Robot Learning Lab called BRETT (which stands for Berkeley Robot for the Elimination of Tedious Tasks) uses deep learning to complete tasks without input from humans. Using trial and error it has learned to assemble a basic toy plane and to place a Lego brick in the correct position.

In the next decade, we could see robots learning complex tasks from scratch. These robots will learn in a similar way to humans, through consuming information, demonstrations by others, and trial and error.

This ability to learn as well as interact safely with humans will have implications far beyond the factory floor. One day, we could see robots taking over manual labor tasks such as painting walls, cooking meals, repairing roads, folding laundry, or walking the dog. But it is a mistake to think only manual labor will be affected; every job has aspects that are predictable and subject to automation.

While the reality of a robot replacing a human may still be some way off, we need to start considering whether our education and professional training systems are fit for the robotic age. As robots become more flexible and responsive, human workers will need to develop new skills and take on more creative or supervisory roles, or they will become redundant. Ultimately, humans will need to possess more flexible skill sets than their robotic co-workers.

As futurist Alvin Toffler noted: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." 

Lynne Goulding is an analyst for Arup's Foresight + Research + Innovation team, which focuses on challenges affecting the built environment, which includes trends and emerging issues driving changes in particular contexts and industries. This article originally appeared on Arup Thoughts. Arup is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, CFE Media, Control Engineering, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

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