Living with Robots

As AI and deep learning systems become increasingly complex, robots are rising to the rank of dogs or even small children in terms of the cognitive tasks that they can perform and the way that they can be trained. Before long, many are predicting that humans and robots will work alongside each other and, for most people, develop relationships that are more social than technical.

rubotWhile this development does inspire fear of some kind of robot takeover for many, the robots that we’re seeing now at exhibitions like the Innorobo exhibition in Paris display distinctly positive attributes.

In Paris, even the term “robot” was replaced with something more indicative of help: cobots, or collaborative robots. Until this point in time, industrial robots have been seen as chiefly expensive, single-purpose machines locked behind cages and designed to replace humans whose jobs involve conducting repetitive tasks like welding in a car factory, for example. These robots are already proliferating in countries with major manufacturing plants like China, where companies like Foxconn, the major supplier for Apple and Samsung, have already replaced 50,000 human workers with robots.

Cobots are different than robotic arms designed to do one specific task. They are cheaper to create and meant to complete many tasks alongside humans, who teach them how to complete these tasks. One cobot exhibited at the show by the name of Sawyer was easily programmed by attendees to move one bottle from one place to another. It’s not a complex assignment, but it does demonstrate how a small business could make use of such a flexible, automated companion. And the breadth of its skill allows it to be a companion and an assistant to manufacturing workers as opposed to a threat to their jobs.

Outside the factory context, robots are becoming ripe for assignment to new jobs as well. Robots may play an integral part in the service industry, provide information in supermarkets, and even help elderly people move through their exercise routines.

Pepper, a companion robot manufactured by a French company but currently owned by Japan’s Softbank, is almost ready to launch in Europe with a variety of potential applications. UK’s Emotion Robotics actually uses Pepper as an estate agent.

Whether this robot’s ability to walk a potential client through a selection of houses is actually superior than that of an smartphone or tablet app is not clear.

ruboterAs to the threat that robots will be taking over jobs and triggering mass unemployment, analysts came out this week with evidence to prove that the risk may well be exaggerated. Fears began to spread when an Oxford University study came out predicting that one third of the jobs in the UK were under threat of automation over the next two decades. However, economists at the OECD took a look at the research and found a less worrying conclusion. According to the OECD, the robots may take over certain tasks within a profession, but they’re unlikely to take over the entire profession entirely.

“Occupations labelled as high-risk occupations often still contain a substantial share of tasks that are hard to automate,” it said in the report.

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