Originally published in LinkedIn
Your next colleague could be an industrial robot. Robots have been around for some time now, especially in manufacturing. What will distinguish the new generation of robots across industries beyond and including manufacturing is their more-than-rudimentary intelligence. We’ll begin to think of these smart creations of technology as co-bots.
The robots we have seen in action so far have been largely in the auto industry, in refineries and mining operations, in the furniture and rubber/plastic industries as well as in military operations. These robots present the classic image of automation while performing tasks like welding, assembling, painting, cutting, sawing lumber, injection-molding, grinding, polishing, disarming and detonating dangerous bombs and conducting reconnaissance. They are little more than advanced CNC machines that work on a fixed input to do a fixed job for a fixed output. Their only advantage is that they make it possible for us to accurately do repetitive tasks or those that could cause harm and injury to humans. To put it another way, these robots can’t be deployed for tasks that have variability. And that is the problem science and technology is trying to address.
Anything that presents variability requires human attention. This is because humans can processes millions of data points to arrive at decisions almost intuitively. Humans bank on knowledge, experience, intuition, and sheer gumption to drive the things they do. Machines too are building massive banks of data with processing capabilities using Machine Learning (ML), Internet of Things (IoT), and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to bridge the gap and handle variability. I think “intelligence” is the key word here. When machines step up their performance using “intelligence” to respond to changing environments, we will be ready to treat them as co-bots.
Co-bots will become an ‘and’ proposition and not a ‘or’ proposition. It’s won’t be ‘can this robot do what a worker cannot do?’ Instead bots and humans will work as teams. A day will come when we will be proud of the bots we work with, comparing and showing off their capabilities just as we do with our smart phones, music systems and cars.
Technologies such as ML, IoT and AI are becoming more precise, making it possible for bots to handle sophisticated processes. We are already witnessing their impact in areas such as trading, medicine and manufacturing. We’ve reached a point in finance markets where bots are trained by humans with strategy, trading rules and checks-and-balances. These bots respond to market price movements and take independent trading decisions. You could be trading in cryptocurrencies while fast asleep using one of these handy co-bots – and many already are[i].
It is my belief that co-bots will drive a very grounded revolution over the next 3 years in areas of manufacturing, warehousing and the retail industry. Co-bots will make a huge impact as they help reduce rejections/returns, increase yield way beyond today’s values and immeasurably improve safety. We need to prepare for this immediate future – by staying open to the idea of “inducting and educating” the new ranks of “co-workers” that are on their way.