The Co-Workers of the Future

Adapting to a Safer Robotic Workforce

From performing delicate, life-saving surgery to making sushi and drilling mines, robots are increasingly a part of our daily lives. Loved by manufacturers, robots hold many benefits over human workers, since they are reliable, do not complain about working overtime or aches and pains, and are capable of performing endless tasks quickly and efficiently.

A few years ago, many laughed when Promobot IR77 – designed to interact with humans, and remember everyone it ever met – hightailed it out of a Russian research laboratory not once, but twice. The cutesy-looking white robot, more closely resembling an oversized toy than something menacing out of The Terminator, managed to make it about 160 feet (fifty metres) from its home before stopping in the middle of a busy roadway, blocking traffic. Despite video of the mechanical contraption making cars and buses come to a standstill, the incident was actually not the first time a robot, seemingly self-aware, went on the run.

Back in 2013, an iRobot Roomba 760 household vacuum cleaner became the first robot in history to, well, ‘kill’ itself. That year, a homeowner in Hinterstoder, Austria, placed the small robot on a counter to cleaned spilled cereal; once the task was done, the machine turned off. Leaving home soon after, the residents returned to find the robot somehow turned itself on again, managed to move onto a kitchen stove, shove a pot out of its way, and melted itself, causing a fire and serious smoke damage.

Some joked that the vacuum, tiring of cleaning chores, choose to commit suicide, much like the Promobot IR77, became fed-up with the repetitive drudgery of the lab and made its escape.

In the past, envisioning humans working alongside robots in our daily lives, taking over jobs, and performing mundane household tasks like vacuuming and mopping floors was the stuff of imagination. In just a few decades, what was once science fiction has become science fact.

In industries such as automobile manufacturing, robots are playing a vital role, as they have since the early 1970s, when integrated circuits first appeared. Robots advanced quickly with the use of microprocessors, external sensors, cameras, and more. Today’s robots are semi-autonomous and used for everything from robotic welding to painting, assembly, material removal, and even working in collaboration with other robots on assembly lines.

To say robots are changing the way cars are manufactured is an understatement: robots are changing the way everything is made. Feel like pizza for dinner? California-based Zume Pizza makes pies with the help of robots, which are baked while being driven to customers, and sliced by a robot that cleans itself. How about a burger untouched by human hands? Several companies are already doing just that, including San Francisco’s Creator and Flippy from Miso Robotics, which use robotic arms and hundreds of sensors to get the patty cooked just right. And while some sceptics will say pizza and burgers are easy to make, surely robots are incapable of creating much more complex and delicate food, like sushi?

Sushi has been the domain of dedicated Japanese chefs since haya-zushi was created in the Edo Period of 1603 to 1868. A company called AUTEC has dared to challenge the human tradition of this centuries-old craft of painstakingly combining rice and fish with the Sushi Robot. Instead of well-trained hands of sushi chefs wielding razor-sharp knives and taking years to perfect rice, Sushi Robots are fast – producing a remarkable 2,400 nigiri rice balls an hour – and keeping labour costs down makes them cost-effective as well as consistent and safe, since the risk of cross-contamination is extremely low.

While using robots in sectors such as manufacturing is not new, the technology is now being embraced in areas like food and medicine, thanks to rapid technological innovations and a growing track record for performance and efficiency.

It is mind-boggling to think that the da Vinci Surgical System – used to conduct thousands of prostate, cardiac valve repair, hysterectomies, and other operations annually – was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) almost twenty years ago. Its robotic arms hold surgical tools and are controlled by a surgeon, and while the system has its share of criticism, from its $2 million U.S. price tag to requiring considerable training to operate properly, it is as steady – if not more so – than the gifted hands of the world’s finest surgeons. This was ably demonstrated in a video in which the sophisticated system delicately and flawlessly stitched the skin back onto a tiny grape.

One of the many benefits of the da Vinci Surgical System is safety. Since surgery is minimally invasive, there is less pain and reduced blood loss, resulting in shorter hospital stays and fewer post-operative complications such as infection, with patients returning home sooner.

Of course, robots will always have detractors. What if they run amok, like in the films 2001: A Space Odyssey, or I, Robot and refuse to follow human instructions? Sure, the image of the Promobot IR77 heading for the hills has its charm, but what if artificial intelligence overruns human control and cannot be shut off, as tragically happened recently with the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 crash, which claimed all 157 lives when the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) forced the nose of the plane down, causing it to plummet to the ground. While the accident is still under investigation, it appears the anti-stall system in the plane was also responsible for the October 29, 2018 crash of Lion Air flight JT610 into the sea near Jakarta, killing all 189 on board.

Tragically, the recent Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes due to MCAS – a new system described by Boeing “to compensate for some unique aircraft handling characteristics,” – was unable to be overridden by pilots who could likely have saved the lives of all those onboard both planes. Incidents like these make the world question, and rightfully so, the safety of humans with the growing use of artificial intelligence and robotics.

Much as human workers in the past had to adapt to assembly lines and then-new mechanized methods of production, future employees will need to familiarize themselves with their robotic co-workers as much as possible. The more sophisticated that robots and AI become and the more the demand for goods and improved production methods increase, the greater the number of manufacturing facilities partially or fully-staffed by machines. As of 2017, the Michigan-based Robotic Industries Association (RIA) stated over a quarter of a million industrial robots had been installed across America, and are now advancing from simplistic tasks to more advanced, autonomous work.

When it comes to assisting humans, robots hold a distinct advantage in reducing or even eliminating injury, particularly traumatic damage – such as a human getting his or her hand caught in a press, for example – or musculoskeletal, the result of repetitive, and often tedious, work. Robots taking on these mundane tasks can withstand damage from crushing, heat, or chemical burns, where human flesh cannot.

As robotics and AI develop, machines will undoubtedly become much more advanced, even intuitive. While there have been incidents with humans being injured or even killed by robots, as happened in the mid-eighties when a worker was crushed between a hydraulic machine and a metal pole, it is crucial to remember this was decades ago. Many advances have been made since that time, including cameras and sensors instructing the machine to stop or even shut down entirely if it senses danger.

As robotic technology progresses, the RIA continues to work to address safety concerns with standards organizations such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and ISO/TA 15066:2016, which “specifies safety requirements for collaborative industrial robot systems and the work environment, and supplements the requirements and guidance on collaborative industrial robot operation given in ISO 10218‑1 and ISO 10218‑2.” Even though safety while operating with and around robots increases, basic devices such as metal barriers or cages and procedures like training for employees engaged with robotic arms and other mechanisms are vital to ensure a safe workplace.

Sadly, the history of mining is also the history of disasters and loss of human life, with countless collapses, fires, black lung disease – coal workers’ pneumoconiosis or CWP – and explosions such as New Zealand’s Pike River in 2010, when methane gas caused four blasts, claiming twenty-nine lives. Despite some opposition from workers, robots often work better and safer in some sectors, mining in particular.

To prevent future deaths, boost safety, and increase productivity, more mine sites are turning to robotic machinery and equipment both below and above ground. These include robotic drills – which are not only faster than humans but can reopen old mines – and devices to monitor and map data like rock stability, temperature, and more. On the surface, massive, self-driving trucks carry tons of ore, and unlike human drivers, do not require breaks.

While concerns about robots persist, there is no doubt the use of artificial intelligence will continue to rise in every sector, from medicine to hospitality and mining and many others. And as technology grows and becomes increasingly sophisticated, humans in the workplace will be safer.

The Co-Workers of the Future

From performing delicate, life-saving surgery to making sushi and drilling mines, robots are increasingly a part of our daily lives. Loved by manufacturers, robots hold many benefits over human workers, since they are reliable, do not complain about working overtime or aches and pains, and are capable of performing endless tasks quickly and efficiently.

Past Issues

June 17, 2019, 1:15 PM EDT