Remarkably Human-Like: Next-Gen Robots
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the late 18th century, machines and humans have worked together to transform human societies in many ways; machines have helped us unlock mass production, transform information sharing, and explore new planets. As we gear up to enter 2022, it appears the boundary between humans and machines is further blurring, thanks to the next generation of robots.
The next generation of robots powered by AI is expected to look and act like humans, all while capable of doing tasks much beyond our abilities. While older robots were simply programmed to fulfil specific tasks, these new robots created in our image will work alongside humans, sharing our spaces, interacting with us, and collaborating to perform complex functions.
To this end, there has been a dramatic acceleration in robotic capabilities, giving rise to machines that are more flexible, mobile, and capable of responding intelligently to unpredictable situations. Broadly, new generation robots will fall into three categories; cobots or collaborative robots that work with humans, interactive robots that talk to and educate humans, and assistive robots that enhance human operations.
The next generation of robots has arisen due to a convergence between the physical and digital world. Physical Artificial Intelligence brings together innovations in material science, mechanical engineering, computer science, and biology to build robots that interact with each other, and the environment like intelligent organisms. These robots are not just designed to perform tasks perfectly, but act more human while doing them. Take, for example, the robots that power the Makr Shakr bar in Milan. Although these are capable of handling glassware, and mixing cocktails, they were specifically made slower to ensure they match human paces and assimilate with the environment.
One aspect of new-generation robots that set them apart from older robots is their dexterity. Advancements in actuators(devices that power the movement of robot joints) powered by force sensors have unlocked intricate motions. No-touch grippers take this further, using ultrasonic sensors to allow robots to grip and manipulate objects without touching or contaminating them. Next-gen surgical robots leverage these capabilities to guide needles through soft tissues and thus place sutures with a low risk of infection.
Furthermore, to allow them to navigate the workspace without human guidance, next-gen robots have built-in computer vision capabilities, location sensors and mapping algorithms. In addition to moving around, these capabilities ensure the robots can detect and respond to blocks in their path. As a result of these improvements, robots can independently function on the industrial floor, performing complex operations such as manufacturing, and packing by switching from one task to another. Another example is the Boston Dynamics’ Atlas, a human-like bipedal robot designed to perform search-and-rescue operations in rough and challenging terrains.
In conjunction with the hardware, the software is also improving. To truly interact with humans, and respond to the environment, next-generation robots must be smarter. To this end, artificial intelligence, natural language processing and machine learning solutions are enabling robots to ‘learn’ through each interaction. Some robots are even capable of watching and learning from videos, feeding the information into neural networks that resemble the human brain.
These next-generation robots are not futuristic pipe dreams; the field currently valued at $26.25 Billion is growing at a CAGR of 61%. In turn, the regulations are catching up to the changing market. The ISO standards that once mandated separations of humans and robots in workspaces to minimise injuries is changing to allow more human-robot collaborations.
Yet, allowing robots to integrate with human life is bound to bring about new challenges, and unintended social consequences. For example, researchers at Yale found that when humans interacted with robots, they acted less ethically. Another concern is robots taking over human jobs. Although industry experts insist robots will never replace humans, uncertainty remains regarding the future. No doubt, this fourth industrial era is going to change human life as we currently know it. The question is, are we ready for it?
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