Sales of workplace robots worldwide growing steadily following a recent slowdown in growth due to the pandemic, according to data from International Federation of Robotics, an industry group. Sales of “collaborative robots”, meaning robots working in the same physical space as humans without necessarily helping them directly, grew 6 percent worldwide in 2020 compared to 0.5 percent for all industrial robots in the same period.
Last week Amazon unveiled a new mobile robot, called Proteus, which has its own rudimentary ability to sense humans. While other robots in Amazon facilities work in separate physical spaces from humans – for example, to move shelves stacked with goods to within reach of human workers – Proteus can navigate through areas where people work. It uses sensors to look for people or other obstacles and stops if it detects that it may bump into someone. Amazon’s announcement “indicates that they are investing in a larger and larger collaboration,” said Brad Porter, who previously served as vice president of robotics at Amazon and is now the founder and CEO of Collaborative robotsanother startup working on robots designed to work more closely with humans.
Robust AI hopes to go further than Amazon by developing robots that can see what human workers are up to and help them. Brooks says this should make human work less repetitive and could help workers take on new responsibilities. “We’re not trying to replace people here,” he says. “We want to make robots work to people rather than the other way around. “
Clara Vu, a co-founder and CTO for Veo Robotics, a company that has developed software that makes even large, powerful robots safe to work around, says that the possibilities for human-robot teamwork are growing because the technology needed to sense, map and move through human jobs, is becoming more common. “We find more robots and humans working together,” she says. “People are starting to look at human and robotic abilities as really very complementary.”
Robust AI targets its technology at smaller department stores that do not currently use much automation. Matt Beane, an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara who studies how organizations use AI and robotics, and who has consulted for Robust AI, says many companies are unable to completely redesign their operations around conventional automation that does not mix well. with people. Companies in that position may be more likely to invest in something like Carter, he says, but it can be difficult to measure the return an operation gets from this kind of human-robot teamwork.
Bilge Mutlu, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has done research showing that collaboration between humans and robots can sometimes improve productivity. He has worked with Boeing, which involves letting robots perform a procedure such as depositing coatings or grinding to make aircraft parts, while a human monitors the work, and only intervenes if necessary. But Mutlu says cooperation does not always improve things, and it is not always clear how it is best implemented. “In academia, we create these impressive demos and things, but science is not quite there,” he says.
Brooks’ latest robot is already a great demo, but it’s going to have to help more companies jump into automation to be successful.