Well, it seemed like a killer idea, and guess what it is.
There are sadly only a few applications today, though. The thing of it is, a co-bot doesn’t know your family. It won’t go to lunch with you.
Instead, it will happily and mindlessly kill you.
I got to see it working – and working well – this year in an auto parts plant in Germany and in a couple of labs. The crazy deal, though, is that these things are bloody (and I use that word on purpose) dangerous. A more dexterous human was generally feeding a robot some supply or setup, but it has to be set up just so for the humans to remain safe. More often than not, the poor robot was in a cage and being fed like a prisoner. When Skynet happens, they are going to remember how we treated them, and it isn’t going to be pretty.
I saw two very promising developments, though. In the lab, I saw a Kuka robot that had an artificial skin. He was just an arm riding on a self-guided AGV, but this approach has great promise combined with limb linkages and, yes, sensors that allow that heavy robot arm to stop or quickly move out of the way when it touches or senses a human. Kuka, as you know, was purchased. I hope their new owners keep up the good work. Clearly, it is expensive R&D.
The other development was an experiment by students and recent grads at the University of Munich. Roboy is an attempt to completely mimic a human form as a robot with a skeleton, wire tendons, and servo muscles. The advantage of Roboy is that he moves like a human when bumped and is designed to move about a world we clearly designed for ourselves (heights and forms of door knobs, car seats, and a million other things). The issue is that he only works slowly from the waste up. This is kind of like coming to the digital party with no pants on. This is clearly very early but certainly promising. The CEO of this effort told me that he envisioned the first humanoid robots being domestic servants. Uh oh. There goes that Skynet worry again.
Rather than emulate humans, we seem to have plenty of them such that we may not need to emulate at all. It seems clear that getting our own humans productive first is currently a far better use of our time and money right now. Of course, this area will advance, and it would be great if the robots could take on the most tedious and dangerous work, more like heroes, versus second-class citizens. It would also be great if they don’t kill or injure any of us while doing so. What I’ve seen this year tells me there is still quite a ways to go.
Come on boss, I will wait for what you cook up on day three.