The topics of robotics and automation technology evoke strong emotions. You’re either pro-robot or pro-human. You’re either enthused by the prospect of making your life easier, and you embrace the positive things that are brought about by technology…or you reject all technology in fear of becoming infected by its 1984-esque dystopian nature. My thoughts on the controversy?
You don’t have to pick one or the other! As it turns out, it is possible for robots and humans to coexist in the workplace—and they can even benefit from each other. According to a study done by Julie Shah, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it’s all about cross-training your human and robotic employees. This means that you should teach your robots to be cooperative and to work as a team with their human counterparts, rather than training the bots to get a task done as quickly and efficiently as possible. Shah’s study concluded that teams that were cross trained resulted in the time of humans waiting for robots to finish a task dropped by 41 percent and that the time of humans and robots working simultaneously increased by 71 percent, in comparison to teams that were trained the old-fashioned way.
Need to see it to believe it? No problem. Here are four great examples of humans and robots working together in harmony.
- BMW factories
When we think of robots in manufacturing plants, we often imagine an assembly line of robots as a replacement for human workers—but that’s not always the case. Many companies have introduced robots to their factories, and BMW has followed suit; however, the robots in their plants, created by a Danish company called Universal Robots, were designed to work alongside humans. According to Richard Morris, vice president of assembly at the Spartanburg, South Carolina BMW plant, the robots liberate humans from completing tedious tasks, allowing them to instead work on tasks requiring intelligence, and the robots also take over the processes that could cause repetitive strain injuries in human workers.
Moving forward, BMW is collaborating with MIT’s Julie Shah to create more human-friendly robots. Worried that these more advanced bots will eventually take over human jobs on the factory floor? Morris maintains that his factory couldn’t function without humans. “Ideas come from people, and a robot is never going to replace that,” Morris said.
Next time you’re at the hospital, you might be surprised to meet your nurse or doctor’s newest assistant: a Japanese robot name Terapio. This bot was designed to work alongside medical professionals and complete the mundane, repetitive tasks so the professionals can focus on providing care. Terapio keeps busy by recording patients’ vitals, delivering resources, and receiving any data that is manually entered by the medical professional. Another Japanese bot named Robear has recently entered hospitals, and this robot is designed to help lift patients out of bed or place them in wheelchairs to reduce strain injury risk in medical professionals.
Robots are also present in U.S. healthcare. For instance, a robot named da Vinci XI assists surgeons in the operating room at Greenwich Hospital in Greenwich, Connecticut. The da Vinci robot only operates under human control, but it provides surgeons with a super-human advantage. The robot has four arms, with “wrists” capable of 540 degrees of motion, a magnified 3D camera for “eyes”, and small “hands” for executing steady, precise actions. Since the da Vinci robot debuted in U.S. operating rooms in 2008, patients have experienced shorter hospital stays, less post-surgery pain and faster recovery times, thanks to the robot’s minimally invasive approach. Now, I don’t know about you…but I think I’d like to have a robot assistant the next time I need surgery.
- The Field Innovation Team
Combine robots, drones and phone applications with tornadoes, mudslides and hurricanes, and what do you get? The Field Innovation Team (FIT), a non-profit dedicated to using technology and innovation to respond to natural disasters. Picture drones flying over a mudslide and providing first responders with a 3D image of the disaster site. Imagine a robot sorting through rubble left by an earthquake to search for survivors, so human first responders won’t be harmed. Envision a phone application that tracks donations and resources so that officials can prevent fraudulent fundraising activity. The Field Innovation Team does all of this. The FIT is a perfect example of robot-human teamwork: bots and humans working together in times of crisis to save human lives. How could you not embrace this technology?
- Amazon warehouses
In 2012, Amazon bought robotics company Kiva Systems for $775 million in order to bring automated efficiency to their warehouses. Kiva robots began scuttling around Amazon warehouses in July 2014, and as of October 2015, there are over 30,000 robots working in the e-commerce company’s fulfillment centers across the United States. These bots must have usurped jobs from their human colleagues, right? Wrong.
In fact, Connie Gilbert, employee at a California fulfillment center says that employment has increased since the bots were introduced to the workplace. “The work pace is faster and the robots are continuously coming,” Gilbert says. “We have a lot more people that have come in to work and help us out.” Amazon Senior Vice President of Operations Dave Clark said that the company implemented the use of robots in their fulfillment centers to keep up with high consumer demand as well as alleviate the physical burdens of working in the warehouses. The robots do the hard labor of running across the warehouse, picking up heavy objects, and carrying them back to the human employees who then process the orders. “We like to think of it as a symphony of software, machine learning, computer algorithms, and people,” said Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman. “And the people are such an important component; the technology wouldn’t mean anything if you didn’t have great employees that help interact and engage with it.”
Forget human-robot symbiosis. Amazon has implemented a human-robot symphony.
These are just a few of the many great examples of humans and robots cohabitating happily in the workplace. Adding a robot to your workplace won’t automatically send your company spiraling downward into dystopian gloom. Rather, if you properly train your human and robot employees to work together, you might just create a utopian workplace.