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February 16, 2022

How AI Is Driving Advances in Robotics: The 'Cobots' Are Coming

AI is broadening robots' utility beyond the factory floor. Marc Segura explains how collaborative robots, or "cobots," will make humans more productive.

John P. Mello Jr.
John P. Mello Jr.

If robots are to evolve beyond the factory floor and be used more widely in society, artificial intelligence must play a critical role.

Robots were a good fit for the auto industry, bringing robustness, repeatability, and reduced production costs. But a robotics-equipped auto factory is a controlled environment; if the benefits of robots are to become more widespread in the real world, the machines will need to address reliability and safety issues. AI can help.

AI's role in expanding the contributions of robots in the workplace—and to help people in general—was the subject of a fireside chat during the TransformX conference. Participants were Mark Segura and Brad Porter. Porter is Scale AI’s Chief Technology Officer, and Segura is Group Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Consumer Segments and Service Robotics at ABB, a Swiss company that provides power and automation technologies for smart grids, robotics, electric cars, renewable energy, and motors.

Here is the replay of the talk—and key takeaways from the conversation.

AI Can Help Robots Deal with Real-World Uncertainty

Robots in a factory environment work within clearly defined parameters. They may have to deal with a finite number of known parts, and they perform repetitive tasks in a confined area. In the real world, though, the robot may be asked to handle myriad parts, with SKUs changing every day.

You cannot program that. You just need to deal with a new thing every time over and over. And that’s something that traditional engineering could not solve until AI came up. —Marc Segura

Robots Are Benefiting from Other Tech Advances

Robots have the ability to exploit all kinds of technology developments—cloud, AI, CPU power improvements, longer battery life, and new sensor types in smartphones.

Acceleration in technology is faster than ever, Segura said.

[Robots] will have the best batteries to move better and longer. They’ll have the best cameras and sensors and AI to understand the world, and the best CPUs to be able to connect to the cloud. —Marc Segura

AI Will Drive Collaborative Robots to Improve Human Productivity

Segura predicted the growth of more mixed work environments involving robots and humans.

That kind of collaboration between human and robot, though, will require making the machines safer. When robots and humans can work closer together, he continued, it will totally change thinking about workflow. “That’s the most important consequence,” Segura said.

You don’t need to separate robots and people anymore. Together, they can boost the productivity of solutions. —Marc Segura

In addition to being safe, the new generation of collaborative robots, or “cobots,” will need easy-to-use interfaces and intuitive wizards. “It has to be easy to operate. It has to be easy to troubleshoot. It has to be friendly,” he said, because there won’t be an engineer nearby to troubleshoot the cobot if something goes wrong with it.

Cobots will allow robotics to expand into more human environments and services, Segura added.

Robots’ Most Promising Sectors: Logistics, E-Commerce, and Healthcare 

Only 5% of the warehouses in the world are automated, so there's a lot of room for growth there. However, Segura conceded that robots have yet to take off in that sector. “There are companies pioneering the adoption of robots in certain applications, but the waterfall has really yet to come,” he said.

While there has been much talk about order-picking applications, and the technology is approaching a mature state, mainstream deployment hasn’t happened yet, he added.

Segura expects healthcare to be a hot spot for robots, but there, too, proliferation will be a mid- to long-term development. When adoption does take off, he said, it will be driven by a “perfect storm” of talent shortage, increased costs, and complexity.

A Confluence of Technologies

While AI will be the master collaborator for robots—the critical technology that will allow them to be more widely used beyond the factory floor in society—a number of other technologies will flesh out their capabilities. Improved cameras used in smartphones can also become a robot’s eyes. Sensor innovation in consumer tech can give robots a better sense of their environment. Longer-lasting batteries will keep robots on the job longer. More powerful processing units will make them “smarter.” And the cloud will keep them connected. 

The sum of AI and those technologies will allow robots to enter the real world—where nothing is certain other than a lot of change and choice—and cope with that dynamic environment.

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